Mobile World Congress MWC 2019 “Intelligent Connectivity” And More

Every year, the giants and players of the telecommunications industry converge in Barcelona for the Mobile World Congress. The theme for 2019 is “Intelligent Connectivity”. With the rise of AI in smartphones and the use of data science techniques in telecommunications systems, it seems that connectivity is indeed becoming more intelligent. What exactly is “Intelligent Connectivity”? In order to understand, let us delve into the developments that have shaped the industry.

5G, AI and IoT

In a nutshell, “Intelligent Connectivity” is the fusion of technologies. This combines AI and IoT (Internet of Things) with the speed and coverage of 5G wireless networks. The transformation 5G brings is better signaling techniques that allow for less latency and higher speeds, thus allowing applications to make better use of the available bandwidth. With less delays, it makes remote surgery in telemedicine possible with more accuracy and precision for a surgeon. It also allows operators to remotely control machinery in real time with little to no delays. Other applications include autonomous vehicles i.e. self-driving cars, intelligent infrastructure and most importantly faster wireless Internet speeds from telco providers.

AI has brought plenty of innovation to the smartphone industry. We see that in products from Google, Samsung, Huawei and Apple. Google is known for its use of AI in their smartphone camera for the Pixel 2 and Pixel 3 line and also its Google Assistant for Android. Samsung brings us Bixby among the many AI features it has developed. Huawei notably incorporates AI in its smartphone camera system. From Apple we get Face ID authentication which uses AI to identify the face of the smartphone’s owner, even if they are wearing glasses and the face can be from different angles.

Another market that is part of this connectivity are IoT. Appliances and devices are using AI to optimize performance and efficiency. We see this in refrigerators, thermostats for HVAC systems, kitchen appliances, Internet cameras, home security systems and various electronic devices e.g. Speaker Assistants, Smart TV, Clocks, etc. Generally, an IoT device is any gadget you can connect to the Internet with some form of intelligent software. Faster speeds allow IoT devices to stay online for convenience to users. This is what allows a person to control their devices from anywhere. An example of this is a family returning home from a vacation. They want to return home to a cooler environment away from the heat and humidity from outside. What they can do with IoT enabled thermostats is set the AC to high so that when they arrive their home will be a more comfortable temperature.

The glue that binds all this together is 5G wireless technology, the next step in the 3G and 4G LTE network. 5G was not meant to immediately replace 4G LTE. In fact they will co-exist since the 4G LTE network infrastructure is already in place. What will happen is that 5G will be used where available, otherwise the device will connect to a 4G network. This is how 4G and 3G have co-existed. Since 5G uses a dense deployment, urban areas like major cities will reap its benefits first.

For more information about 5G, you can read my article from Hackernoon at this link.

Foldables, Wearables, Multiple Cameras

The most exciting part of MWC is of course new product showcases from smartphone and other gadget vendors. This year it was about foldables, wearables and multiple cameras. These new innovations have already been featured in CES early this year, but now we see more products launching. The trend is heading towards newer designs and form factors that would be unthinkable a few years ago. The designs are also weird, when you think about displays that can fold out into a bigger display. It is pretty much a tablet. Wearables are also taking a new appearance with smartphones. Would it ever occur to anyone that a smartphone can be wrapped around your wrist like a bracelet?

Samsung’s flagship S10 Plus will have a total of 5 cameras (2 front facing, 3 rear main cameras). The logic of having more cameras equates to better imaging, but you don’t need many cameras to create a great image. This was proven by the Google Pixel 2 camera, that with intelligent AI software, you can create great images too. The multiple cameras appearing in new smartphones are to introduce different focal lengths which can take images at different angle of views. The software can then combine the different angles to create a composite image that uses the result from multiple cameras.

Huawei introduces the Mate X and Samsung the Galaxy Fold. These are foldable smartphones that folds out into a tablet. It also looks more sturdy and durable than the Royole FlexPai. My problem with foldables is at what point are they going to break. How many times can you fold the display before it shows wear and tear? Are these displays easy to replace, are they replaceable parts? I was skeptical about foldable smartphones at first, until I realized its potential. It is not just about design, there is also functionality behind it. Folding a smartphone to fit in your pocket and then folding it out to become a bigger display is the selling point. As these designs become more sturdier and user friendly, I think they have plenty of utility. That is just something that cannot be ignored.

The wearables are something else in 2019. No major announcements for smartwatches and fitness bands, what we usually associate with wearable gadgets. There were some products on show. Microsoft introduces the Hololens 2 with a different look that is meant to be more comfortable and intuitive to use. More compelling was the Nubia Alpha, which is a smartphone and smartwatch type of device you can wrap around your wrist. Most the news about smartwatches are still not confirmed, and they surely did not appear in MWC 2019.

New Smartphones

The Samsung Galaxy S10, S10 Plus and S10e launched ahead of MWC, and are getting great reviews. At MWC, there were other new smartphones exhibited that take the limelight away from the S10 series. This year there was a showcase of smartphones with newer designs and features. There are three smartphones I am going to discuss because of their radical new features.

Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G — The 5G smartphones are coming. The Mi Mix 3 5G is marketed as being able to increase Internet data speeds 10x over 4G LTE. The purpose for 5G was to boost speeds, and this is what the Mi Mix 3 aims to deliver.

Nokia 9 PureView — Nokia has really taken things to another level with the PureView. Well, it is because 3 cameras does not seem enough for them. They added 5 cameras on the rear main camera of the smartphone. The camera has a weird design, which looks like a sci-fi device. The camera system consists of 3 monochrome and 2 color cameras. Its known to take high quality photos. According to TechRadar:

All five of its cameras have the same aperture and field-of-view, and when users take a photo, the entire array snaps a shot at the same time and composites them into one image.

I am not going to explain the camera system Nokia uses, but you can read more about the Nokia 9 PureView here.

Sony Xperia 1 — Now Sony is releasing a smartphone for streaming junkies. For those who watch a lot of videos or play games, this is Sony’s offering. The Xperia 1, according to TechRadar:

Has a 4K HDR OLED panel — a first for any phone — and it comes in a 21:9 aspect ratio, which makes the phone taller than others on the market.

That is a great aspect ratio for high resolution cinematic quality, but on a smartphone display not TV.

Intersection of AI and the Blockchain

One of the keynote presentations this year at MWC was about AI and blockchain technology use in telecommunications. Its inevitable and it is already here. Vendors like HTC and Samsung are incorporating digital hardware wallets into their smartphones which can store cryptocurrency. Normally, cryptocurrency holders would use a hardware wallet like a Ledger Nano or Trezor. Now that smartphones can also function as hardware wallets, that is quite revolutionary that it can lead to more adoption of cryptocurrency.

The presentation at MWC was about the clear opportunities of AI and blockchains. The main use of blockchains in bringing transparency to how we transact with others, ideal in a P2P payment system. To be able to do this with our smartphones entails a new type of trust, in a system that is permissionless and trustless. AI has its shortcomings in transparency which the blockchain can address. This aims to foster more development in decentralized systems that can use AI to deliver new services to consumers.

There were some keynote presentations this year on blockchain use in data networks. As the technology evolves, so will the many types of applications it can be used for. Though it may seem like a hype train, there are real world uses for blockchains. It is just a matter of proper implementation and industry adoption to see it further develops into a trusted solution. At the moment developers are just beginning to implement blockchains, so there is no conclusion to its effectiveness yet and we should not always associate blockchains with cryptocurrency.

Security and Authentication

On a more technical topic, security and authentication are just as important as the features and design. A brilliant development was early in 2018 when Vivo released a smartphone with in-display fingerprint sensors. Samsung has also developed its own brand of in-display fingerprint sensor, using ultrasonic technology instead of an optical reader. Other vendors are adopting this technology over Apple’s Face ID authentication system, as a primary means of authentication to a smartphone. The truth is having many layers of security is always welcomed, even when it comes to authentication.

We can authenticate on our smartphones using pin code, Face ID and biometrics i.e. fingerprints. Are there new ways that authentication can be further secured? If you are already familiar with 2FA or MFA, that adds another layer. There is an evolving threat landscape and this is something that is being addressed.

If you think about the scale of smartphone and IoT devices, we are talking about millions to billions of devices. They are interconnected by the Internet, and this is also accessible to hackers and bad actors. Taking security into consideration means protecting end points for these devices as well as protection for individual devices.

Another big concern is state sponsored cyberattacks and corporate espionage by tech companies. Huawei is one company that has been accused of this, and they addressed this point at a keynote during MWC. According to Huawei’s chairman Guo Ping:

“To build a secure cyber environment for everyone, we need standards, we need fact-based regulation, and we need to work together. … To build a system that we all can trust, we need aligned responsibilities, unified standards, and clear regulation. … I fully agree with recent recommendations: Governments and mobile operators should work together to agree upon Europe’s assurance testing and certification regime. NESAS is a very good idea and I would recommend extending it to the world. … Huawei has not and will never plant backdoors. And we will never allow anyone else to do so in our equipment.”

5G security will be an important topic since telecom providers are now beginning its rollout. Addressing the concerns of securing traffic on small cell networks would be protocol specific, though there are certain network issues that have been pointed out in the past.

According to Raj Samani, Chief Scientist and Fellow at McAfee, we should prepare for better risks.

“MWC is awash with news that 2019 will be the year of 5G. Promising faster speeds and increased connectivity. The University of Iowa is right, 5G will inevitably introduce security risks to the networks people are using.

However, what they haven’t considered, is that the risk will have far wider consequences for consumers. As the user experience becomes quicker and more seamless, people will be tempted to connect to the internet on-the-go even more, across multiple devices. The level of data being transmitted across networks and stored within the cloud will increase with these faster speeds. In turn, the number of devices being connected will grow at an exponential rate expanding the threat surface significantly.

To ensure that data is protected in a 5G-connected world, security must be embedded at every touchpoint — from the cloud, to the network, to the router in people’s home and all connected devices.”

In other security related topics, Kaspersky Lab presented a bionic hand that uses security software for protection against cyber attacks. This was meant to suggest the use of bionic implants that can be incorporated into the body to protect devices like smartphones and wearables. The implant provides a unique “key” that only the user has in their possession. This would in theory, limit bad actors from accessing sensitive information by restricting it to the owner who has the implant.

Privacy

With regards to privacy, tech companies including telco providers and vendors are complying to the EU GDPR laws. New services and products coming out since it was put into effect must respect the rights to privacy of consumers. While data protection and privacy remains a hot topic, there will always be auditors who will go after companies that collect user data. Google and Facebook have already been fined for violations of how they are collecting user data. With compliance, consumers will be guaranteed a level of privacy that should keep their information protected. Its just not that easy to say that no data breaches will occur to guarantee these protections. Companies will still have to do their due diligence to ensure that user data is only collected with consent and cannot be monetized without user permission.

One big reason to be concerned about privacy is the widespread use of AI in IoT devices and smartphones. Consumers want guarantees that their information or data is not being harvested for undisclosed purposes. There needs to be more transparency in how data is being gathered. AI is very much data driven, and that is understandable. The data is needed by device software in order to make decisions and perform tasks. Now the paranoid in us might be thinking, “Is our data being collected by these IoT devices?”

This is why Huawei is addressing the issue that it is engaged in spying with their products. This is definitely not allowed in the EU and that affects Huawei’s business. Consumer confidence is important too, so Huawei is coming clean regarding these accusations.

The Innovation Is In The Connectivity

To wrap up my thoughts, MWC 2019 is about how 5G is the innovation that will change the way we connect. What AI and the IoT need is a fast network, and 5G will provide it. Low latency and high speed data allow for new services and applications. While 5G has been a topic during MWC for quite some time now, 2019 is when it finally materializes. All the talks are now producing results as 5G projects come into fruition.

Designs are becoming more creative, with foldable displays and wearable smartphones. I was not too fond of these devices at first, but after seeing the greater utility they can provide, I now believe that they can be very useful. It may be practical as a daily driver for business users, who will likely be the early adopters. The early versions of these devices will be quite expensive, so they are probably going to attract a more high-end consumer market at first before gaining wider adoption.

Smartphones are now loaded with so many new features. Each year it seems that something new is introduced but otherwise the changes seem incremental rather than revolutionary. We’ve seen that in the past with the iPhone’s introduction. Now we are seeing better displays, smaller form factors, support for wireless charging, faster processors and now even integration with cryptocurrency. 2019 is probably going to be about the value proposition of buying a new smartphone when the current one we have is already useful. Are vendors expecting us to buy a new smartphone every year when a new model is released?

With the deployment of 5G, we probably do need to upgrade to a new smartphone soon. Current smartphones do not have 5G compatibility. It is also not software or firmware upgradeable, it will require totally new circuitry so that requires purchasing a compatible smartphone or device. The timeline in the next 2 years is to upgrade to a new smartphone, but 5G will not replace the 4G LTE networks yet. The advantage will be to those who have a 5G compatible smartphone since they have access to faster speeds. In time economies of scale should bring 5G smartphone prices down. There are already new plans telco providers are offering to their customers who want to move to 5G.

The market is always adjusting to new technology. It will determine the direction of 5G eventually, since telco providers want to make money. If the market continues to expand in smartphone sales, 5G will also expand along with it. After seeing the products and services being offered in MWC 2019, 5G is becoming the reality that the industry has been preparing for. Now there are a lot of expectations from it. This is going to be the main driver moving forward.

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Vincent Tabora

Editor HD-PRO, DevOps Trusterras (Cybersecurity, Blockchain, Software Development, Engineering, Photography, Technology)