When the flight attendant requested that all electronic equipment be switched off, it was like that scene from Mad Max where Mel Gibson is asked to leave all his weapons at the door. Five minutes later, when the last OLED screen dimmed to black, we were ready to take off for Barcelona and the Mobile world Congress.
This was my first experience of the biggest mobile event of the year, so I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t been warned about company booths the size of a Beckham house, no one told me that the venue would take 25 minutes to circumnavigate, and my stomach was not prepared for 4 days of canapés, strong coffee and ham, cheese and bread combos.
The first thing that I noticed at the event was the people. There’s a certain frantic energy that comes with having spent a great deal on a ticket, event, seminar or booth and the required return on investment that is needed from business deals and publicity. But there is also an infectious kind of passion and excitement that comes from actually speaking to an engineer, entrepreneur or product manager as they lovingly explain the product or technology that they’ve been slaving over for months or years.
Next up, the booths. These ranged from a single solemn man stood next to a laptop on a tall round table to the monstrous multi-story palaces from brands such as Samsung and ZTE. Many of the stands had upstairs balconies, private meeting rooms and comfy chill out zones. The most impressive for me belonged to the Russian mobile manufacturer Yota. Resembling an exclusive Moscow nightclub, it featured vertical metal bars, stylish blue hanging lights and was manned by fearsomely efficient staff dressed all in white.
Not everyone needs a booth though, it seems. One man with an iPad, a fresh pack of business cards and a company-logo t-shirt can cover a lot of ground at MWC. I bumped into ex-Layar CEO Raimo Van der Klein in the lunch queue, then learned about his latest project, Vinson: a slick white label mobile TV application which aggregates live, on-demand and social content, so independant content publishers can create an online TV network that bypasses traditional cable subscription. With his tablet and his patter he had me hooked on the idea and promising to blog about it (happy now Raimo?) before I’d finished my baguette.
This became a theme for the majority of the event, the little guys doing the most interesting stuff, particularly from my user experience perspective. I was most inspired by the smaller interactive technology booths that weren’t providing polished presentations with dancing girls, but presenting raw proofs of concept that offered a glimpse into the future of user experience. For example: Finwe’s use of a mobile as a control device for 360 degree panoramic video on large screens; Tokyo University of Technology’s Pinch interface for connecting multiple device screens (nice of Sony to host their stand); or PixelPin’s graphic alternative to passwords. These got my mind racing far more than the multitude of slightly better mobiles on display from major brands.
After four days, hundreds of handshakes, several cumulative hours of ‘wifi-dowsing’, some very special sushi and one woeful football match, I left Barcelona with my suitcase packed full of flyers and branded USB sticks and my brain overloaded with information. You can plan ahead as much as you like, but it is impossible to see and do everything at Mobile World Congress, you just have to try and get what you can from it. For me, the most interesting insights often arose from chance conversations or from stumbling upon a little booth hidden away in the corner. I guess that’s the secret of MWC, despite all those flashy product demos and giant screens, it’s the conversations that are the most rewarding part.
Looking forward to next year.