Greetings from Barcelona, where tech and telecoms executives are gathering with renewed excitement this week for Mobile World Congress. A combination of the imminent launch of 5G and a clutch of folding phones is reinvigorating the mobile industry, despite last year’s smartphone market declines.
Yet Sunday’s MWC press previews were missing their usual anchor tenant, Samsung, who instead launched its latest Galaxy devices at its own event in San Francisco last week.
That left the way clear for its fast-growing challenger Huawei to leap in and take centre stage. The Chinese tech group was always going to be a hot topic this year. As my colleague Nic Fildes writes today, industry executives have dubbed this week the “Battle of Barcelona”, as Huawei faces off against several delegations of US government officials, who are concerned about the security of its infrastructure.
Huawei has spared no expense in trying to seize the PR initiative. Its logo is emblazoned on every MWC attendee’s lanyard and its new folding phone — a genuine technical breakthrough — was appearing on billboards across Barcelona even before it had unveiled the Mate X on Sunday afternoon.
Huawei’s hardware seemed to receive a warmer reception than Samsung’s Galaxy Fold: Huawei’s rival is thinner, faster and generally better designed. Yet it is also even more expensive than Samsung’s $1,980 Galaxy, with the Mate X costing as much as $2,600 when it goes on sale in a few months. Even the most enthusiastic mobile operators concede that only a few early adopters will pay that much for a handset, especially one whose exterior screen looks so vulnerable to damage.
Compared to those prices, Microsoft’s new HoloLens 2, which was also unveiled at MWC on Sunday, almost looks like a bargain. Though Microsoft is not pitching its “mixed reality” headset to consumers, it has actually cut the device’s price, from up to $5,000 for the original to $3,500 — or $125 a month if you buy into a multiyear cloud services subscription package.
The second HoloLens features a radically redesigned optical system that uses lasers to “paint” holograms on the back of the retina and its new gesture-based interaction system is more natural, allowing the user to reach out and “touch” the digital images they see.
After several years of boring homogenised smartphone design, it is exciting to see Huawei, Samsung and others battle it out in Barcelona with wildly different visions of our mobile future. But it may well be Microsoft — currently the world’s most valuable company with (for better or worse) no legacy handset business to defend — which ends up stealing the show this year.
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