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What the biggest trends from MWC 2019 tell us about our mobile future

by Lewis Leong on Mar 5, 2019

MWC 2019, the largest mobile conference in the world, just wrapped up and there’s a lot to unpack. All eyes were on Barcelona to see what technologies would be announced and for good reason. MWC gives us a glimpse into our immediate future, showing us the phones we’ll be using and highlighting the infrastructure that will power them.

Last year, we saw 5G dominate headlines at MWC with smartphone companies simply iterating. This year was a bit more exciting as we saw the introduction of foldable phones, 5G tech finally being realized, and tepid news from the virtual reality/augmented reality/mixed reality space. But taking a step back, we can see specific trends emerge, hinting at where the mobile industry will go in the next several years.

5G will propel game streaming

5G dominated headlines at last year’s MWC and for good reason—it’s the underlying infrastructure that will power our mobile experiences. It’s not only the theoretical speeds that should get you excited but what can be achieved because of it.

One of the most exciting paradigm shifts in gaming is game streaming. Once speedy internet is available on the go, we’ll be able to stream games to our mobile devices as we do with music and video. Consumers will purchase subscriptions to gain access to a library of games which can then be streamed to a variety of devices, including mobile phones.

We first saw hints of this direction with the success of Fortnite and PUBG on mobile phones. While both games have to be downloaded in order to be played, it showed that there was an appetite for console-quality games on mobile. Once 5G gets deployed, mobile gamers will be able to play any game they want on the go.

This isn’t to say that all mobile gaming will be for these AAA console-quality titles. Game streaming and 5G will simply allow users more choices on the types of games they play. On the go, mobile-focused titles will still dominate as they are made for touch and feature shorter gameplay sessions. Game streaming will likely require users to buy a wireless controller to play competitively at first but taking a look at the increased real estate that foldable phones allow, on-screen controls may not be as cumbersome as they are on our current smartphones.

On the go, mobile-focused titles will still dominate as they are made for touch and feature shorter gameplay sessions.

We’re only seeing the beginning of the 5G infrastructure being built today. As VentureBeat reports, it’s going to be a long and expensive road ahead for 5G deployment. The GSMA, the trade group that hosts MWC Barcelona, estimates carriers will be spending upwards of $160 billion per year to roll out 5G. The telecom financing firm Greensill estimates that carriers will spend an estimated $2.7 trillion through the end of 2020 to build out 5G.

2019 marks the year we begin seeing phones and other hardware begin supporting 5G, but it won’t be until 2020 at the earliest when consumers can begin to see a 5G rollout in any usable capacity.

VR/AR/MR continue struggling to go mainstream

As with CES 2019, MWC 2019 did not have a lot of updates on the VR, AR, and MR fronts. Microsoft announced its Hololens 2 AR headset, which are smaller and lighter than the first generation, features better hand tracking, and increases the field of view. But the Hololens 2 is targeted at the enterprise market and its $3,500 price tag ensures only large businesses will be able to afford the technology.

HTC also announced the Vive Focus Plus, which improves on comfort and its hand controllers now support six degrees of freedom, up from three. The Vive Focus was HTC’s stand-alone VR headset, which means it doesn’t require a PC or phone to run, allowing for a fully wireless experience. It also doesn’t require any external sensors for positional tracking. It’s HTC’s most consumer-focused (pun intended) VR headset yet but with a price tag of $600, it’s $200 more expensive than the Oculus Quest, which is slated for release this spring, and is also targeted at enterprises rather than consumers.

The reason for VR, AR and MR’s slow adoption isn’t just down to slow, iterative hardware developments. It’s also because there’s not enough compelling content for AR and VR yet. Don’t get me wrong. I think VR and AR will drive the future of fully immersive gaming, but there needs to be content for the platform to drive users to it. For now, we’re waiting for a radical shift, either in hardware design of development of content for the platform that will entice users to see VR, AR, and MR as the next big computing and gaming platform.

Consumers will have more smartphone choices

The biggest news coming out of MWC 2019 this year was the introduction of foldable phones. Samsung beat everyone to the punch by announcing the Galaxy Fold, which you’ll actually be able to buy for an eye-watering $2,000. We wondered if the smartphone market could bear the $1,000 iPhone X and two years later, we’re seeing phones costing double. Not to be left behind, Huawei also introduced its own foldable phone, the Mate X, which costs an unheard of $2,600. Not that it matters as most of us can’t afford that and it won’t be available in the United States anyway.

Looking past the staggering prices of these phones and the sci-fi tech that enables foldable phones to exist, smartphones are getting weirder and increasingly niche, but that’s a good thing. For years, consumers have been buying flagship smartphones, whether or not they need all of their features. Apple popularized the smartphone by selling one model for years until the introduction of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in 2014. Today, Apple sells seven models of iPhones (even more if you count refurbished models).

For years, consumers have been buying flagship smartphones, whether or not they need all of their features.

MWC 2019 showed that manufacturers are beginning to make increasingly niche phones, catering to consumer’s specific needs. For mobile users who enjoy casual games, a $200 smartphone is good enough. Not everyone needs a $1,000-plus smartphone to enjoy the bleeding edge of mobile gaming. For enthusiasts, we’ve already seen manufacturers tailor experiences and features to them with phones like the Razer Phone 2 and ASUS ROG Phone.

Take a look at the laptop market, which is highly saturated and as a result, there are more variations of laptops than ever before. We have traditional clam-shell laptops, ones that can fold into tablets, and tablets that basically function as a laptop with a keyboard connected. We also have crazy gaming laptops that push the limits of performance and Google’s Chromebook, which functions entirely in the cloud. This trend of offering niche hardware will inevitably happen to the mobile market as it reaches saturation. This is good news for consumers, as they will have more choices than ever, picking devices that suit their needs and budget instead of being forced to buy a phone with features they never use.

Want more insights on the future of the mobile industry? Be sure to read our series, The Future of Mobile Gaming, where we take a deep dive into the trends that are driving the change across the mobile gaming ecosystem.

Lewis Leong is AppLovin's Content Marketing Manager.