In one of the most famous scenes in the film Troy, Brad Pitt, who portrays legendary Greek warrior Achilles, walks over to the enemy lines after slaying their champion, and screams “Is there no one?“, throwing down a challenge to anyone who dares cross swords (or lances) with him. As the curtains came down on the 2016 edition of the Mobile World Congress, I was sore tempted to do the same, minus the helmet, armour and other Greek-warrior-in-Troy paraphernalia. For, not withstanding all the high profile launches and discussions, the milling crowds, the rave reviews and punditry, the biggest feeling that MWC left me with this year was one of…well, for want of a better word, emptiness.
By emptiness, I hasten to add, I don’t mean absence of products or technology. No, those twins were in abundant evidence during the event. There were so many products launched and so many technologies showcased that I wager those who were in the hallowed halls of the event were royally tired at the end of it all. A friend of mine who attended MWC claimed they were walking close to 25,000-30,000 steps a day as per his Apple Watch. And as for the press releases that were raining down into our mailboxes, I stopped counting after the number exceeded a hundred comfortably half way into day one. No, there was no dearth of tech at the Congress.
What WAS, however, conspicuous by its absence was invention, that eccentric offspring of that marvellously ill-matched and yet adorable couple: courage and crazy. No, I don’t mean innovation, which is essentially changing something that already exists but invention, which refers to a whole new way of doing something. Yes, we liked the modular design of the LG G5 and the always on screen, but heavens, Nokia was showing us camera grips that could be added on to phones and a similar kind of display concept years ago. And well, while we are already hassling HP for details of the Elite X3, the fact is that the concept of a device that can work as a phone as well as power a larger device is not exactly path breakingly new – remember the Asus Transformer Book V, which tried something similar albeit in a different way in 2014? One also couldn’t help but roll one’s eyes at the virtual reality launch of the Galaxy S7 – OnePlus did something on a bigger scale minus stage and a large venue last year. While on the subject, virtual reality is insanely interesting and full of potential but persists in remaining more virtual than material (and more often than not, designed for the materialistic when in material form).
And well, the spec race seems to define phone companies pretty much as much as the rat race does the human ones. That at the end of the day, people were more surprised by the price of the Xiaomi Mi5 rather than what it did to the phone experience sort of summed up the feeling. OnePlus’ Carl Pei could well have been speaking for me when he tweeted that “MWC16 felt a lot like MWC14.”
No, I am not saying that there was NO invention at all at Barcelona. There were more than a fair share of strange new devices and accessories, but the point worth noting is that almost all of these seemed to come from lesser known names – the big companies seemed content to stick to the straight and alas, narrow, path of just touching up what already exists a little here and there. And that is not a new phenomenon – the last time someone really made us sit up in surprise at the MWC was perhaps when Nokia revealed the 41.0-megapixel camera driven PureView 808. Too many of the big names – be it Apple or Google or Microsoft or Amazon or Facebook – seem to be more intent on showcasing their best at their own events rather than at the MWC. Once considered the hub of mobile sorcery, MWC is becoming a classic case of business as usual – with networking of the corporate sort often overshadowing its tech counterpart.
Which is a massive pity for the likes of Yours Truly, for whom MWC always represented the one event where one would get to see not just the very best of the present but also a glimpse of the mobile future. It was THE place to go to if you were in mobile technology. Well, it still is. But it perhaps is rapidly becoming a place where one needs to be seen, rather than one to showcase the seemingly impossible. “There is more name-dropping than jaw-dropping happening there these days,” a colleague of mine remarked with a wry grin about the event.
Of course, I hope I am wrong, and that Crazy and Courage have not left the MWC venue at Barcelona. It would be a massive pity if they have. And would indeed tempt me to say, a la Achilles, albeit more with sorrow than fury:
“Is there no one…”
(Note: A lot of people will complain that there is a lot of “me me me” in this piece. Well, that is because it reflects my own personal opinion and not those of the editorial team out here which did a sterling job of covering MWC 2016. And incidentally, I have never been to MWC. And still thought it used to be magical. If that does not tell you what it was at one time, well, nothing will)