Coronavirus fear killed Mobile World Congress 2020, and the impact on the wireless industry might be huge.
By Sascha Segan
The fear is viral. While there have been only two cases of the new Covid virus in Spain—as opposed to 22 million flu illnesses leading to 12,000 deaths this season in the US alone, according to the CDC—snowballing hysteria over the possibility that a few people may get a flu-like illness, but not the flu, led to the cancellation of the biggest trade show in the mobile device world.
MWC has been my favorite week of the year since I started going in 2005. It’s not just a place to see a bunch of new phones, it’s a place to connect with everyone smart in the mobile industry, to learn from the best, and to get a grip on the trends that will define the upcoming year in mobile.
This cancellation is a huge loss. It’s a huge loss for the industry, for innovation, and for 5G, and it isn’t going to save any lives. The hysteria over the new Covid virus outside China appears to be the Shark Week of epidemiology-playing up a low-risk threat into screaming terror because it has a scary face, in this case, the face of China, newly terrifying enemy of all things Western.
The GSMA gave a weak statement saying that MWC will be back next year, but I don’t see how the organization, the industry, and Barcelona will get over this hump. It’s just too big a burn in terms of the millions of dollars wasted-not just the eight figures each dropped by giant exhibitors, but the big percentages of smaller companies’ marketing budgets. Little of this will probably be recouped by insurance, as Spain has not declared any sort of emergency warranting the cancellation of the trade show. It was canceled merely through a snowball of panic.
Business may shift to other shows, or may vanish off to WebExes and road shows. Large companies, burned, will demand more control over what happens with their own marketing budgets. Smaller companies will be the ones who really suffer, as they won’t have the access to all of the world’s mobile operators in one place that only MWC could provide.
What Consumers Lose
Every phone that would have been announced at MWC will still be announced. But you aren’t going to get nearly the comprehensive views on them as you would if they were at MWC.
Take Sony’s approach. Sony was planning to show off its phones at its booth, where hundreds of journalists would have gotten their hands on them. Hands-on stories, as much as we mock them sometimes, are critically important because phones are physical objects. The look, feel, and build matter a lot-that’s a big part of why online smartphone sales have never really dominated in the US, because people want to paw these things in the store. Now Sony is going to demo its phones with a YouTube stream where you’ll see pictures of the devices, but nobody will be able to judge if they’re too wide, or weirdly long, or beautifully glowing, or deadly dull.
People outside the US, who like reading about devices in their local languages, will especially feel the lack. Briefings at MWC tend to attract a lot of global press, including folks from smaller countries and venues who can’t otherwise get access to devices. MWC results in thoughtful, local language hands-on coverage in Israel and Slovenia. Manufacturers don’t generally go to Slovenia.
So for consumers, no MWC means less truth about phones.
It also means a less profound view on trends. Hitting MWC lets analysts get an overall view of where the industry is going, which (if we’re worth our salt) we pass along to you. The efficiency of meeting Ericsson, Intel, Mediatek, Nokia, and Qualcomm in one day informs my chipset and network coverage for the entire rest of the year, so I can tell you what to expect from 5G and who’s making promises that they probably can’t deliver. Without MWC, that’s much harder, if it happens at all. That means we’re less able to help you predict what’s coming, so you can plan your purchases for the year.
What the Industry Loses
What consumers lose is nothing compared with what the industry loses. MWC’s real function is that it’s the one marketplace where smaller companies can meet with all of the world’s carriers and infrastructure providers. Let’s say you’re a wireless business software services firm-your next opportunity may come from Etisalat, Kazakh Telecom, or Sudatel. If you wanted to do the global selling tour, it would take weeks of travel and complex visas to meet with carriers around the world, something most start-ups can’t afford. MWC provides the marketplace.
With 5G build-outs getting rolling this year, this show could have been a huge opportunity for start-ups with new 5G applications, and for existing firms with everything from 5G testing to infrastructure equipment to flog their wares to the hundreds of hungry wireless carriers needing options throughout 2020 and 2021.
Now those companies will find it much harder going. They’re going to have to knuckle down and make a lot of phone calls, get on a lot of planes, and miss the serendipity of being in a big room with a lot of potential clients. I’ve seen the sparking magic that comes from walking a trade show floor, how you discover people and solutions that you may connect with, but that you didn’t previously know about. That’s not happening this year, and that may slow down the march of 5G.
What Barcelona Loses
The economic impact of MWC on Barcelona is huge, in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The city pretty much sells out. It’s not just the hotel industry-restaurateurs, taxi drivers, even SIM card salespeople at corner shops see a boom.
The GSMA has a contract with Barcelona through 2022 to make the city its Mobile World Capital. I wonder if there are any penalties that would cause the contract to break. If so, the GSMA might want to restart a smaller, perhaps strictly operator-only show in a different European city, based on its operator membership with a clique of vendors meeting the operators in back rooms. This would be a place where business gets done, not a place where innovation is shown.
As much as I love Barcelona, Barcelona hasn’t always been good to MWC. Nearly every year, strikes and protests have marked the event in a way that I’ve never seen with CES in Las Vegas, Computex in Taipei, or IFA in Berlin. Every year, the message boards for local Barcelona media are filled with people complaining about the show. This rupture could cause everyone involved to rethink their relationships.
Does Mobile Come Back From This?
The GSMA says Mobile World Congress will come back in 2021, but I’m skeptical. Making a huge investment in this event requires a sense of security. Even here at PCMag, where we didn’t invest all that much, our money for MWC means there are other flights we can’t take-it’s a choice. For many years, it was a positive choice; for this year, all that nonrefundable money will be a wasted choice. Most people can’t afford refundable tickets, and the official MWC travel agency doesn’t offer last-minute hotel refunds.
Where do we go from here? Phones will still be launched. Don’t worry about that. What we’ll lose are the connections, the trends, and the dealmaking.
There’s no room at CES-Las Vegas is literally full. More focus will certainly go to the GSMA’s smaller, regional events, held in dank hotel ballrooms where vendors go to plead their case before local operators. Some flashier displays might go to IFA in September, although the timing could be off. Some of the industry connections will go nowhere at all-to a more difficult world of skip-hopping and video conferencing every potential client, to fewer hands-on possibilities with devices, and to less opportunities for small vendors to connect with the world’s wireless decision makers. Fear is deadly, and in this case, it has killed.
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.