By adaptive - March 7th, 2016

The mobile industry’s annual gathering in Barcelona revealed that many companies are iterating on each other’s ideas, while few blaze original paths forward. Andrew Tolve reports.

In the news

Tablets are finished. Smartphones are static. Virtual reality is the future of mobile. Those were some conclusions from this year’s Mobile World Congress. In a first since 2010, when tablets stormed onto the scene, not a single tablet debuted this year in Barcelona. Zero. Zilch. Nada. They were like the plague. No one wanted to be within shouting distance of them. Smartphones were there in droves (see coverage below), but they all looked pretty much the same, reinforcing the notion that true innovation for mobile handsets (beyond progressively more powerful cameras) has become exceedingly rare. The answer, the mobile industry seems to believe, is alternative realities, be they augmented or virtual. HTC unveiled its Vive VR headset, which will retail for $799 when it hits stores later this year. Samsung’s Gear VR was a show stopper, as were lots of new fish-eyed, 360-degree cameras that support virtual reality, like Samsung’s Gear 360 and LG’s 360 Cam (both of which debuted at the show). And Google showed off the latest of its Project Tango with an augmented reality tour of Barcelona’s famous Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. The trouble with VR and AR is that purveyors of mobile seem far more excited about it than mainstream users. Perhaps that will change. Perhaps it won’t. Either way, the mobile industry is in search of its future identity.

In the money

Sweden-based startup Mapillary wants to document the whole world in photos via crowdsourcing, and it just got $8 million in Series A funding to kickstart the endeavor. Investors include Sequoia, PlayFair and Atomico. Mapillary plans to use the money to grow in size and open a new office in — you guessed it — the startup nirvana of San Francisco. The ultimate goal: Create a far superior Google Street View.

In other news

Back to Barcelona. The headlines and leaks leading into Mobile World Congress largely centered around Samsung and the debut of the iPhone’s latest competition: the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge. Sure enough, the phones showed up, and while they didn’t deliver much change from their predecessors (they share the same look, down to the same size AMOLED displays), they did add some cool features, like water resistance to five feet of depth and on-screen shortcuts similar to the iPhone’s new force touch commands.

Then there was LG and its new G5, whose biggest differentiating feature is a bottom half that snaps off so that a user can insert a second battery that's charged and ready to go. Alternatively, they can add an expansion pack that enhances the phone's camera, with physical controls for zooming and shutter speeds, or an audio pack that soups up the phone with a better speaker and larger amp for headphones.

Both Samsung and LG complemented their smartphone debuts with new offerings on the connected car front. Samsung rolled out Samsung Auto Connect, an aftermarket service that plugs into the OBD II port of a vehicle and sends updates and alerts to a driver’s smartphone. Similar services already exist from OnStar, Verizon Hum, Zubie and Automatic. LG is working with Intel to bring 5G connectivity to cars. The two are focused on vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), and vehicle-to-pedestrian communication.

Two other smartphones commanded attention:

Xiaomi’s new Mi 5 is made out of super scratch-resistant ceramic zirconia, as opposed to the traditional glass and metal that other handset makers use. Xiaomi says the material is twice as hard as steel, and nearly as hard as diamonds on the Mohs hardness scale. Sadly, the 3D ceramic body only comes on the exclusive edition of the phone, not the standard or high edition.   

HP’s Elite x3 is a Microsoft Windows phone that targets the mobile enterprise with promises of heightened security and productivity features. The phone plugs into a stand to transform into a laptop or desktop computer. Critics still have doubts about any Microsoft Windows Phone (remember the Lumia 950?), but we’ll see how the Elite x3 performs when it hits stores this summer.

Huawei launched the MateBook, a hybrid PC whose keyboard and screen detach to make a stand-alone tablet (there, we said it!). An optional stylus and docking station round out the offering. Launch is set for U.S., Europe and Asia in March starting at $699.

Smartwatches and wearables were sprinkled here and there around the exposition hall, led by a new offering from Garmin, the Vivoactive HR. The GPS smartwatch integrates heart rate technology to keep track of active moments throughout the day, from steps and floors climbed to sleep monitoring and to specialty apps for tracking running, biking, swimming, golfing, snowboarding and other sports. SRP of $249.99.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg showed up for a fireside chat to discuss the show’s main theme: “Connecting Everyone and Everything to a Better Future.” That fits nicely with Facebook’s organization, which aims to connect the 4 billion on the planet who don’t have access to the Internet today. Zuckerberg highlighted Facebook’s Free Basics program for developing nations and talked about some cutting-edge solutions, like using laser transmissions from satellites to boost connectivity in far-flung lands.

Once the show concluded, Facebook revealed that Telenor has signed up 36,000 employees for Facebook at Work. This matters for two reasons: one, Telenor is by far the biggest global enterprise of the 450 enterprises that have joined Facebook at Work to date. Second, it’s a reminder that Facebook at Work is coming, and coming in a big way. Some 60,000 companies are now on a waiting list to join, and Facebook says it plans to shift its program for internal social media for businesses from beta to full launch later this year.

Facebook also integrated Spotify into its Messenger app, so that users can fire up shared songs straight from their texts. This comes on the heels of integrating Uber back in 2015 so that users could order transportation straight out of the app.

Google launched Hands Free, a small pilot in the Bay Area that could change the game for mobile payments. The idea is to use near field communication so that people with Android Pay on their phones don’t even have to pull their phones out of their pockets when they’re checking out. All they have to do is say that they want to pay with Google and give their initials, which the cashier can see on their screens, along with photo ID. Google has launched the pilot at McDonald's and Papa Johns Pizzeria (gulp).

Finally, the mobile revolution has cable TV on the ropes, and Sony took another step toward a good old-fashion KO. The company just dropped the price of its live TV streaming service, Playstation Vue, by ten bucks a month and added a wealth of content from Disney, ESPN and ABC. See our full analysis here.

The Mobile Digest is a biweekly lowdown on the world of mobile, combining Open Mobile Media analysis with information from industry press releases.

Andrew Tolve is a regular contributor to Open Mobile Media. 

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