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The virus curing the mobile industry's chronic addiction... and sparking an impressive algorithmic price experiment

I'll miss the MWC muggers, not the marketeers

Column One of the biggest experiments in algorithmic price management is currently underway, as the GSMA, the mobile industry's lobby body, has scrapped this year’s Mobile World Congress gabfest.

MWC Barcelona was due to start in ten days. But the GSMA crumbled after a week when the likes of Cisco, Sony, Intel, AT&T and Facebook cancelled due to the vastly unattractive prospect of spending three days in close proximity with each other.

Good. Mobile World Congress – now rebranded to just MWC – has always been a fever-dream event, and not one of the good ones. It's clearly massively inappropriate to hold it in the early stages of a global pandemic of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Massively inappropriate has never stopped the mobile industry before, but this time nobody wanted to play, especially in an industry with such a large Chinese component.

In the 1990s, when I first started a run of about 15 attendances, the event wasn't MWC. Called first the GSM World Congress, later 3GSM, it was a far smaller affair that could shoe-horn itself into Cannes. In those days when the internet had not yet evolved into an all-consuming monster, there was lots to catch up on, actual news happening, and a good chance to schmooze.

We had class – as when the Virgin Mobile launch yacht party ran out of fizz at 2am, and a PR and I commandeered Beardy's Roller and driver and went off into town to throw pebbles at a vintner's bedroom window.

It was also good when big things were moving fast in the industry. When France Telecom bought Orange and we all gloomily predicted that this was the beginning of the end for the brand's reputation, I was angrily berating a France Telecom exec about mobile roaming charges. Roaming had the same return on investment and moral status as bank robbery, I said (views that have not changed). To my surprise, he agreed wholeheartedly. "They are sinful. Shocking. But they make everyone so much money. Nothing will change that."

That sort of comment fires up a journo. It sticks in the craw. A few years of campaigning later, a bunch of us did indeed help to change that through European regulation, ultimately saving mobile users billions. Nice while it lasted.

Marketing meeting in meatspace

But now the event is the size of a small city and barely fits in Barcelona: 100,000 attendees from all the tribes try to juggle impossible schedules and impressive hangovers through 4G and internet links strained to breaking point. It's like LinkedIn decided to throw a festival where you actually have to meet each other.

The abiding image these days isn't of some exciting new technology but the endless rows of executive jets parked along the apron at Barcelona Airport. These people run the world's telecommunications. They don't need to be here to talk to each other. You don't need to fly the population of Ipswich half way around the world to see Samsung launch a phone that was leaked the week before. And in the year of our Lord 2020, the mobile world will discover this truth for itself.

It'll be harder for many of the SMEs in the industry whose entire business calendar is centred on MWC, and I know people who've been working on their show strategy since last summer. If you make antennas, or test equipment, or network management software components, where else do you get to show them off? But there are ways, there are always ways, and if the GSMA is smart, it'll be there to help.

Not all conferences are useless or as obscenely over the top as MWC. There's a simple rule that applies to many other things, but especially here: the more marketing runs it, the less useful it is.

Conferences run by engineers for their peers are peerless: they want to talk about real-world problems and working solutions, they want to learn what's actually going on from people who don't have a marcom budget. They value each other's time. Marketing-led affairs don't want to talk about their problems, because they only have solutions. Expensive solutions. Security conferences run by hackers, wireless conferences run by makers, even company conferences with people who make the tech, are usually a joy. Having Oracle tell you how fantastic Oracle is, is not.

And that experiment in algorithmic price management? 100,000 aircraft seats are suddenly empty. 100,000 hotel beds slumber undisturbed. Expect the biggest fire sale ever, and for those who can take the time, the last few days of February in Barcelona will be idyllic this year. It’s going to be fun watching the travel websites.

Some people will be sad. The pick-pockets and muggers of old Barcelona town will miss MWC and their annual technology refresh. I'll miss the happy shouts of "Hey, Biggie!" from the sex workers as I trudge back along Las Ramblas to my over-priced, under-connected apartment miles away. But the show itself? I got over that infection decades ago. It's time the industry followed me home. ®

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