Personal Tech

Omg, that is, like, sooo 2007... Retromania set to grip this year's MWC

Can Nokia and BlackBerry save us from this 'turgid sea of sameness'?

Analysis Hold the front page! Nokia's launching a bunch of new phones this weekend, and everyone is very excited.

So is BlackBerry. The founder of CrackBerry.com thinks it's the most exciting event in years.

Perhaps you fell into a deep coma in 2007 and have just woken up. Was the last decade all just a horrible dream?

No. It's just the modern handset business eating itself.

The two giants that dominate the phone industry today, Apple and Google, barely had a toe in the water a decade ago. The just-announced iPhone would be a novelty PDA. And neither bothers much with the mobile industry's annual zoo, Mobile World Congress. Two titans from a decade ago, and nobody was bigger or more influential than Nokia in 2007, are making a comeback. Or more accurately, the brands are being revived, given a new suit, and will step out to try and score a date. MWC is the comeback party for two names that were the future once.

Barcelona will again play host to 100,000 looking for the next big thing. We compared our list of expectations with 25-year MWC veteran Ben Wood's at CCS Insight. Being a highly intelligent fellow, Ben's predictions lined up remarkably closely with ours.

Old-school cool

We kicked off by agreeing on the state of phone design. "A turgid sea of sameness" is how Ben describes the current market – phones all look the same and work well. What differentiation there is is small. It's mostly about what marginal value you see in a device for your particular price bracket.

Wood did have one prediction few of us will make: "Voice is going to become cool again. After years and years of voice being left outside, it's cool again."

How so?

"Natural language speech interfaces are now good enough to deliver a pretty usable experience. They're the buttons and knobs for a new generation of user experiences."

Not sure I'd go that far, Siri.

Samsung typically launches its annual Galaxy flagship at MWC, but it's postponed the launch until after the event: creating an opportunity for another vendor to steal the show. Who might this be? Nokia?

We differed on this point. The leaked news that Nokia would launch a retro 3310-style candy bar created a avalanche of misty-eyed press coverage everywhere last week. But I'm not sure few people under 40 will see what the fuss is about. Millennials don't do voice much anyway, and there isn't much else a 3310 (retro or otherwise) can do well. And £25 Nokia-branded candy bars have never gone away – your sub-post office sells them.

Maybe the Neo-retro-3310 will have some modern gimmick? Ben wouldn't say. HMD has bags of goodwill from older consumers but it's hard to see what it can offer Western markets. I can't see more generic rectangles, perhaps attractive to upwardly mobile professionals in India or Mexico, making much of a lasting impression here. As Wood explained to us last year, HMD's strategy is to go big very quickly, to try to achieve scale. We'll have a good idea of whether it's got anything for us in a few days.

BlackBerry's back, alright!

I was more bullish for BlackBerry's comeback. BlackBerry's proposition is for a more secure, regularly patched but uncluttered business and professional cut of Android. Can we conclude that it's been tested in the marketplace and was found wanting? Perhaps not just yet.

Chinese giant TCL has acquired the rights to the brand for most important markets, and it's said to be planning a comprehensive relaunch of the BlackBerry handset. It helps that the debut device "Mercury" – the last to be designed in-house by RIM/BlackBerry – is attractive as any. BlackBerry made three Androids, one that was dogged by a high price and performance issues, and one that was very good indeed, but gave them only minimal marketing.

Wood thinks QWERTY phones can't now break out of a niche "like the rugged phone from Bullitt guys [the Caterpillar-branded Cat S60, which won a best of show at MWC 2016 – ed.] or the Kodak phones."

With HTC also sitting out the show, LG and Huawei will vie to produce the most attractive flagship.

Wood thinks AR will continue to make ground while VR remains a slow burner. CCS Insight predicts sales of dedicated VR helmets to reach 22 million in 2021 – much more than today, but nowhere near the home console business.

"AR and VR is really, really hard – and it's going to take years, and we're still in the stone age. When Zuckerberg says it's a 10-year project, he's right. I think they look absolutely ridiculous today. But think of fully immersive untethered VR with a fantastic field of view, multiple Ks of resolution: mind blowing, but it will not happen overnight."

Smartwatches still a thing

As for the wearables segment, we were comparing notes before the news that Fitbit had lost a fifth of its season sales in 2016. He doesn't see the modest changes to Android Wear changing the watch business much. Instead, look out for more people trying "smart analogue", like Withings, which Nokia acquired last year. Withings' smartwatch is really an analogue watch but with only the most minimal digital connection, built into a small on-surface OLED display.

"Think of something that might buzz for notifications, or measure your steps or sleep – but not much more. Only with a 6 to 12-month battery life."

Also, says Wood, look out for lots of Gigabit LTE announcements. Although officially only a stopgap to 5G, everyone is behind it, and Wood is enthusiastic.

Expect to see widespread operator support next week – and device support in phones that pack Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835. Like, we expect, the Galaxy S8.

"Having a reliable 50Mbps to 100Mbps up and down connection is a game changer. Yes, we'll get all the old jokes about burning through your data bundle in a blink of an eye. But it's about getting that high bandwidth connection quickly."

Also look out for 360-degree cameras ("VR cams") getting cheaper enough to build into phones. Youngsters, cramming their mates into a widescreen picture at a party or concert, seem like a crowd who can make use of it.

Nevertheless, stand by for an orgy of retromania. At least on Monday. ®

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