Last week all mobile roads led to Barcelona for the annual industry get-together. Many of the discussions at MWC were through the lens of previous week’s blockbuster deal of Facebook/Whatsapp. The deal touches upon many of the technology and business trends up-and-down the mobile stack.
According to industry sources, the first 3GSM had a grand total of 72 attendees cobbled together by self-interest and coaxing. Fast-forward to 2014, and the show has become the most dominant show on the planet, reporting over 80K attendees from around the globe. Perhaps, it is an indication of the improving economy and the fact that we are firmly on the 4th wave impacting every industry vertical.
This note presents the summary of the observations and discussions from the show.
The deal everyone was talking about
The news that everyone was talking about and dissecting was the one that Facebook struck with Whatsapp in a blockbuster announcement few days ago. For folks who were looking primarily from the financial metrics couldn’t come to grips with the magnitude of the deal. However, as I mentioned on CNBC, the deal has to be understood from the point of view of strategic moat for Facebook. Additionally, when the street measures the company by the number of active users, at $130/user, the deal was a bargain. Having said that, there is whack-a-mole element to this strategy. It takes enormous courage to strike such a deal but if you look it from a strategic point of view, Facebook could have easily spent $25B to secure their future in the short-term. The cost of not acting is much higher.
Connecting the unconnected
Connecting the unconnected was by far the biggest theme of the show. From Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote to the launch of $25 devices from Mozilla, there was concerted discussion around how to increase the 3.5B consumers to 5-6B. The business models were hotly debated both in public and private meetings. How does this get funded? Clearly, cheaper devices, lower infrastructure costs, lower application delivery models are key, but how do you onboard these users is one the biggest challenges of the next 5 years.
The emergence of the 4th wave and the competitive dynamics in the markets has put tremendous pressure on the operating margins of the operators. In order to compete and make the organization more nimble and future-ready, one has to tackle the problem on multiple front – reduce the number of resources required to accomplish the tasks, get rid of the network architecture that is limiting and controlled by proprietary interfaces and vendors, drastically reduce the cost of operations, and enable the API layers for quick service creation and deployment. As a result of this pressure and desire to change, SDN and NFV took more prominence this year compared to the past and operators are urgently moving to cloud-based infrastructure. AT&T’s CTO John Donovan emphasized the need to work with startups and more nimble/innovative players than the incumbents to reduce cost and introduce new services quickly (this paper on the subject is worth the read).
5G – 5GPPP and NGMN
While 4G has been the fastest network technology in the history and we are seeing deployments around the world, industry has officially set its sight on defining 5G. A couple of prominent efforts were announced at MWC – 5GPPPled by the Europeans and NGMN – an operator led initiative. A couple of things will have to be worked out as industry bodies look to define 5G and its use cases. While there is politics and jostling to get an advantage, someone will have to harmonize the definitions and requirements. And more importantly, the discussions of 5G should involve the leading OTT players given that 5G will be applications-led network technology.
Ecosystem value shifts
There are significant value shifts that are taking place in the ecosystem. The value is shifting to the upper layers of the stack. This is what is defining the current turbulence, which is exciting to many and depressing for some. Regulators are caught in the middle unable to understand the OTT landscape and design policies that work for the overall growth of the industry that drive the investments, innovation, and GDP growth. We are likely to see the overall pie grow but the tremendous value creation and destruction within the confines of this growth.
MWC picked up where CES left off in wearables. There were many more players who launched watches with different flavors and price point. Industry is also getting conscious of the design elements is what is going to drive the industry. On a larger scale, the industry is waiting for Apple to release its version of wearables and watches, create awareness, and hope that the rising tide lifts all. Huawei, Motorola, Sony, and others announced watches to the market in 2014 without any information on pricing or availability dates. As we mentioned in our CES summary, the wearables market is likely to split into the commoditized layer and the fashion segment.
MWC was light on any major device launches except for S5 from Samsung who announced the device in a low-key press conference. There were some other interesting concepts introduced like Yotaphone with an e-ink interface on the back and the privacy-infused-Blackphone. The display is one area, which could bring in new form-factors and use cases as industry gets saturated with existing designs.
IoT is going through its hype cycle right now. IoE takes the notion even to a next level. Everyone wants to make things connected but how will this all pan out, what are “real” use cases? Who bears the cost of the additional BOM? What form of connectivity is required? How do you unify the underlying platform so IoT is exposed as an opportunity to the developers? There are still more questions than there are answers. The most ambitious practical initiative is from GE, which is looking ways to improve its operations using sensors in a significant way. Intel, Cisco, AT&T, Telefonica, Ericsson, Google, Facebook, and many others are all contributing to defining what this connected world will look like in a few years.
I moderated a couple of panels on the role of network APIs in the IoT world. There was significant interest in the developer community on how to tap into this emerging opportunity.
The connected universe will generate opportunities for many players especially the chip manufacturers. Qualcomm has had a dominant role in the chipset space for sometime and continues to operate from its high perch but market is seeing credible solutions and traction from Mediatek who is attacking the market at the bottom end and Intel, which is taking a more performance-centric strategy.
We will be conducting two in-depth sessions on IoT in the coming months. IoT Americas in Seattle (March 18th) with AT&T, Samsung, and adidas and IoT Europe in London (June 17th) with Telefonica and Intel.
There was a lot of talk about Smart Cities and by extension Smart Nations. However, we haven’t settled on a set of operating models to fund such initiatives. Smaller nations have a better chance to execute on the vision. Countries that have the political breed, regulators, and the industry in sync will see quicker progress than the ones mired by constant election cycles and lackadaisical regulatory regimes. Japan, Korea, Australia, Israel, Spain are a the forefront of what a “Smart City” means and more importantly how will these initiatives will get funded.
This year connected cars feel more real with imminent launches and data become a key selling point for the OEMs. The primary use cases are safety, diagnostics, and navigation. Next come entertainment and the larger developer ecosystem. Business models vacillate between the kindle model (of embedded connectivity) to shared data plans (attach your cars to the data plan you already have). We are likely to see much activity, deals, and progress in 2014 as the likes of Ford and GM have become regular fixtures at MWC.
Carrier-Aggregation and Hetnets
Carrier aggregation (CA) and Wi-Fi-cellular integration is not new. Vendors and operators have been talking about it for some time. Most of the LTE operators are in the process of implementing CA to boost the bandwidth and gain more efficiency out of their spectrum assets. Integration with Wi-Fi also gives a boost though there are some enhancements needed to fully utilize Wi-Fi. KT perhaps had the most impressive demo with 3 CA demonstrating speeds of 400-600 Mbps. In a country where 100 Mbps is commonplace, it is no surprise that Korea is pushing the boundaries with LTE.
Network investments – $1.7 Trillion in the next five years
All the progress that has been on the mobile economy has been on the back of trillions of dollars of investment over the last couple of decades. With declining margins, how long do operators continue to invest and at what pace? What’s the margin profile they are willing to live with? What’s the role of government in building out the infrastructure when high-speed mobile networks are concerned? Japan, Korea, Israel have all based their competitiveness on connected broadband world. Can others follow? The impact of Whatsapp launching voice services and Netflix/Comcast deal were hotly debated in the hallways. It is one thing to put out national broadband plans and it is entirely another reality to have an execution path to deliver on the plan. The broadband investment has much far reaching implications than most people and governments realize.
Move towards data-only plans
As we have chronicled in our 4th wave series papers, the past revenue curves of voice and SMS though still generating significant revenues are on their way out. We will be transitioning slowly but surely to the “data-only” world where consumers pay for data packages and voice and SMS are just IP apps on the network being offered by the operator or other 3rd parties.
While the industry still has the Mediaflo hangover, LTE broadcast seems to be gaining more traction as more operators are committing to trials and experimentation. The business model (for generating new revenue) still stays elusive.
The cacophony of OTT regulations is increasing. Faced with OTT impact on their core business, operators are asking regulators to take a broader look at how communications is regulated. Most of the regulators seem incapable or unwilling. There is an urgent need to overhaul the policy framework worldwide and more harmonization is needed so that the developers are not constantly looking at a moving target. However, it feels like the current tools are inadequate to keep with the times. Nations who get what it means to be “digitized” are investing and positioning their respective countries for greater competitive position for the next decade while others will be forced to fight the cycles of unemployment, sluggish growth, and widespread apathy.
Big data – data is the resource that feeds the economic engine and industry growth
Not surprisingly, there was a lot of talk about using data to fuel new industries and business models. While we are having pertinent debates about security and privacy, the opportunity to use data for greater efficiency and new revenue streams is no more academic. Companies who have gone through the investment of collecting and streamlining the data sources from not only their internal operations but also partners and the developer ecosystem are going to reap better rewards in the long-term. All this is to have an unfair competitive advantage in the “battle of context” which is going to get played out for the second half of this decade. However, big data is also raising big questions about security and privacy.
Security and Privacy
The requirement for tighter end-to-end security and regulators involvement in managing privacy is becoming very important especially in Europe. Given the pervasiveness of Android, it remains the favorite target of the hackers and the frequency of attacks has seen an enormous increase over the last 12 months. The Snowden effect is having tangible impact on US businesses in Europe and elsewhere and given that mobile is platform of choice, many governments are trying to figure out how to regulate security and privacy.
Nokia’s love affair with Android
The fact that Nokia announced more Android devices than those on the Windows OS pretty much sums up the conundrum Microsoft is in today. Nokia’s recognition that Android is a ticket to recognition proved that its Windows-only strategy had been flawed all along. Had it chosen a dual Android/Windows strategy at the outset, Nokia’s history could have been different and the company might have not seen such destruction in value. In any case, the Android device roadmap was prepared primarily to seal the Microsoft deal so we don’t expect any major Android handsets on Microsoft’s roadmap.