A line of Samsung phones at the Mobile World Congress. (Photo: Associated Press)
BARCELONA, Spain –– The Mobile World Congress here in Spain is coming to a conclusión; it’s one of the largest exhibitions of smartphones, smartwatches, smart furniture, and Internet-connected everything of the year.
Almost 2,000 companies exhibited their latest and most enticing mobile products in the hectic and winding halls of the Fira Gran Via convention center in Barcelona. The show is mostly focused on the major smartphone manufacturers, as well as global telecom, and on smaller companies from Europe and the Middle East –– French, Israeli, and Spanish entrepreneurs were out in force –– though there were also especially large presences by plenty of Asian and African companies as well. MWC has grown to encompass anything that can connect to the Internet –– not just your phone or your tablet.
Plenty of news poured forth from the walls of the congress: Samsung unveiled the impressive Galaxy S6 smartphone, its latest attempt to take on the iPhone; HTC unveiled its slightly less impressive One M9; and BlackBerry revealed that it will release a new phone with a slider keyboard later this year. Wireless charging and mobile payments both got major jolts, from companies as diverse as Ikea and Samsung; Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai both confirmed that their respective companies are working on aircraft that can connect people to the Internet. Security seemed to be on the minds of many, as at least three new encrypted phones were released, and many companies (including victims of recent incidents Lenovo and Gemalto) talked up their security credentials.
Condensing all this information isn’t easy, but we’ve tried. And because the Mobile World Congress, with its start date at the beginning of March, tends to be a barometer for the year ahead, the Yahoo Tech team on the ground tried to predict what you can expect from your tech in 2015.
So: What did we learn?
1. You’re about to see a lot more hipsters paying with their phones
Until now, it’s just been showoffy iPhone 6 owners who could tap-and-pay with their phones at the local Whole Foods Market. Now a lot more mobile-pay hipsters are about to get in on the action, and at a lot more stores. Samsung announced on Sunday that its new line of Galaxy S6 phones, arriving shortly, will incorporate not just tap-and-pay technology, like the iPhone, but also a clever magnetic wave system that can fake an old-fashioned credit card swipe. That means S6 owners who sign up for Samsung Pay will be able to use their phones to pay almost anywhere in the United States, not just at the few hundred thousand stores like Whole Foods that have wireless-compatible checkout registers.
READ MORE: Samsung Pay vs. Apple Pay vs. Android Pay
Paying by phone probably won’t become massively popular yet. Yes, yes, the transactions use a smarter encryption scheme to protect credit card numbers from hackers and thieves. But that’s all behind the scenes. Most phone-pay transactions still require a signature, and most consumers will still probably find paying with a phone no more convenient than paying by card. — Aaron Pressman
2. Google and Facebook are getting serious about providing Internet
It’s usually the new gadgets that make headlines at MWC, but both Google and Facebook caught the world’s attention with dueling announcements about their Internet aspirations on Monday. First, Google’s Sundar Pichai announced improvements in Project Loon, the company’s Internet balloon experiment for hard-to-reach locales, and then revealed that Project Titan, a newer experiment involving solar-powered drones that can deliver emergency Internet after a natural disaster, will be ready to fly in the coming months. Pichai also said that Google is preparing to become a mobile carrier, though he tempered expectations by saying Google would be a small-scale carrier, along the lines of Ting or Boost Mobile, in the United States. Don’t worry, Verizon.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was here for the second year in a row, talking up his Internet.org project to connect the 10 percent of the world that’s not online. Most people read his repeat presence here as an effort to assure carriers, as Google’s Pichai did, that they had nothing to fear. Again: Don’t worry, Verizon.
READ MORE: The Internet Balloons and Drones Are Coming
Of course, if I were Verizon, I’d be worrying. When an Internet giant like Google or Facebook sends one of its biggest executives halfway around the world to tell you not to worry –– well, maybe it’s time to start improving those networks before the international launch of Google Mobile. — Jason O. Gilbert
3. Virtual reality isn’t just a fad
Want proof that virtual reality headsets aren’t just another fad destined to go the way of 3D TV? Then look no further than the show floor at the Mobile World Congress. Not only did HTC and Valve debut their new Vive headset, which lets you physically move around your room as you play, and which absolutely blew our minds; Samsung introduced a new version of its Gear VR headset for the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge as well.
Even companies you wouldn’t associate with virtual reality were getting in on the act. South Korean wireless provider SK Telecom was hosting Oculus Rift-powered hot-air balloon rides within its booth, while another booth let convention goers strap on a headset and burn rubber in a virtual racecar around a track. It may still be in its early stages, but if the Mobile World Congress proved one thing, it’s that virtual reality will stick around for some time. Or at least until we get bored with it. — Daniel Howley
4. Wireless charging may not be doomed to irrelevance
Wireless charging is a decent idea that’s been held back for years by an industry that couldn’t decide on a single standard. We’ve now whittled it down to two competing standards (called Qi and Powermat), and this year’s Mobile World Congress provided a little more room for wireless charging optimism than before. The Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge, sure to be the biggest non-iPhone phones in the world, support both Qi and Powermat charging; Ikea, the world’s largest furniture seller, announced that it would soon sell furniture with Qi chargers built in. Those are large steps toward more mainstream adoption of cordless charging. Apple, unrepresented at this show and in the two existing wireless-charging groups, may also soon ship its own proprietary version of the concept; the Apple Watch will come with a version of wireless charging that remains mysterious in the week leading up to its official release announcement. Though there are still obvious kinks –– someone has to buy this stuff before we can call it mainstream –– wireless charging was given a little juice at this year’s MWC. — Rob Pegoraro
5. Smartwatches are getting a lot prettier
Even before the Apple Watch arrives next month, Apple’s competitors have been busy announcing rival products. Many are based on Google’s Android Wear, the somewhat underwhelming software that powers last year’s poor-selling smartwatches. But some manufacturers are going their own way. LG’s newest models include one that can connect on its own to high-speed mobile LTE networks, and it’s not using Google’s software. Instead, the watch’s operating system is based on the once beloved WebOS system developed by Palm years ago and acquired at a fire-sale price by LG two years ago from Hewlett-Packard, which itself got the software in the 2010 fire sale of Palm. And it gives LG’s Urbane LTE model a more refined, colorful and good-looking design.
Chinese manufacturer Huawei also showed a surprisingly spiffy-looking smartwatch, developed by Ben Norton, a watch designer who has worked for Fossil and Armani. It runs Android Wear but could be priced well below competing models when it’s released in June. Equipped with 40 classic watch-face screens, it may be the least geeky smartwatch yet. — Aaron Pressman
6. Smartphones are, too
There was a time when Apple’s iPhone was clearly the most well-designed and premium-feeling smartphone on the market; that era is over. Samsung upped its design game, ditching its traditional plastic for an alluring combo of glass and metal on the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge (above); that was almost a necessity after last year’s Galaxy S5 faceplant. But I was amazed by how many other smartphone makers around the world have figured out how to design a high-end smartphone. Phones from LG and Sony shone bright; Huawei, ZTE, and Lenovo all make phones you wouldn’t be embarrassed to carry into a meeting. The days when iPhone fans could gloat about obviously superior design instincts are passing us by; now there are real arguments to be had over what is the most attractive smartphone in the world.
The answer might be a product you can’t even buy in America. — Jason O. Gilbert
7. Security has become way more important to gadget makers
Set aside Silent Circle’s debut of the Blackphone 2 and Blackphone+ and its bold claims to be “replacing BlackBerry in the enterprise”; the best news about smartphone security at MWC was arguably the increasing availability of login options besides passcodes and screen patterns that many owners can’t be bothered to set up. In particular, fingerprint recognition — considerably improved from Samsung’s earlier efforts on the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, and tolerant of wet fingertips in the version Qualcomm demonstrated and expects to see shipping in the second half of this year — doesn’t require users to memorize or carry anything extra.
The second-best news: the simple presence of Android 5.0 Lollipop on so many new phones. Two years ago, I couldn’t find a single phone at MWC running the release Google had shipped the previous November. Even though Google now delivers many security fixes through channels outside of formal Android version updates, this attention by manufacturers represents a major upgrade to phone security. — Rob Pegoraro