In one of the iconic scenes of Troy, Greek warrior Achilles (played by an abundantly toned and cut Brad Pitt) slays an enemy champion and then asks the dead man’s terrified comrades:
“Is there no one else?”
No one steps forward, clearly terrified of taking on the Greek champion. At which he strides off with contempt (you can see it here). Well, Samsung’s latest flagships, the Galaxy S9 and S9+, would be feeling a sentiment that is not too dissimilar to that of the reel life Achilles in that film at this year’s Mobile World Congress. In fact, as a digital rain of leaks preceded the launch of the Galaxy S9, the Korean giant’s competition seemed to have decided to just postpone its own launches to another date and venue. And if that sounds harsh, just consider the brands that did NOT show up with significant new devices at MWC – Motorola/Lenovo, HTC, LG (no, we do not consider the reworked V30s anything major), Xiaomi, Oppo, all opted to keep their own flagships under wraps. In fact, the only devices that actually could pretend to provide some sort of challenge to the S9 and S9+ were Asus’ new ZenFone 5z and Sony’s Xperia XZ2. Yes, Nokia’s Sirocco edition of the 8 and Vivo’s Apex concept phone also grabbed some attention, but honestly, nothing out there seemed to be quite in the same class. Of course, the likes of Apple, OnePlus, and Google have never showcased phones at MWC.
The net result: the S9 and S9+ found themselves in an almost empty flagship phone field at Barcelona this year. Of course, this was largely good news for the Korean brand, as it meant the spotlight largely stayed on its new devices but seen from a wider perspective, it does make us wonder if the Mobile World Congress’ days of feverish flagship sparring are slowly receding into the past. For, there was a time when the Mobile World Congress would see most big brands actually showcasing their best phones, both existing and forthcoming – a rumor has it that Jobs actually had considered it as a possible venue for unveiling the first iPhone. Almost every big brand out there has had its ‘MWC moment’, be it Nokia, Sony, LG or Samsung. In fact, as recently as 2016 saw Samsung, LG, HTC, and Sony showcase high profile devices, even while Xiaomi sneaked in the Mi 5. Things, however, were quieter in 2017 when Samsung opted to skip the event and most of the attention was actually taken by a new blast from the past – the Nokia 3310. LG did release the LG G6, but by flagship standards, it was a minor ripple in the ocean.
Indeed, recent times have also seen most brands opt to use their own events to showcase flagships rather than piggyback on MWC. The logic seems simple – yes, it is a more expensive exercise but at least the focus remains on a single brand than multiple ones. Chinese brands like Xiaomi, Huawei and OnePlus have in particular made their launches very high profile and attention-grabbing, almost like rock concerts, complete with their own fans. Interestingly, while all three brands were present in some capacity at Barcelona, none of them released a flagship phone. Not formally, anyway, for if the whispers and rumors from the corridors of the conference halls and indeed on different websites were to be believed, all three were readying rivals to the S9 twosome. Huawei is working on its P20, which will attack the photography high ground the S9 has claimed; Xiaomi is working on the next in the design-centric Mi Mix series and also on its Mi 7 flagship; and of course, OnePlus is already fanning the flames for its next device, the OnePlus 6, which will also slog it out on cameras and to a lesser extent, design. And this does not even include the efforts of Apple, Google, Oppo, Motorola/Lenovo, Vivo, HTC and LG – all of which are also working away on a new generation of flagship devices.
Yes, the MWC remains a very important place indeed for anyone involved in mobile technology, and a great place for newcomers and smaller players to showcase their own products and services. As a tech editor once pointed out, “they may get all the attention, but there is more to phones than flagships.” But it would seem that the event is increasingly losing out on flagship launches by participating brands. Which is a pity really – it is a bit like seeing a very good film. But without superstars.
There are a lot of flagships left in 2018. Unfortunately, many of them were not seen at Barcelona. Even Samsung would agree, we feel.
Them Achilles feels.