The Mobile World Congress (MWC) is probably one of the world’s largest industry events – part trade show, part conference, and part show-off venue for everything that is new in the world of mobile communications and connectivity.

For the better part of a week in February, it takes over the city of Barcelona attracting nearly one hundred thousand delegates from all around the world. A transport strike by Barcelona transport workers – metro and bus on alternating days – did not dampen the energy of the event nor disturb the order of events.

The Show

The first thing that hits you – right in Hall 1 – is the size of the Huawei pavilion (a maker of mobile devices from China). It occupies most of the hall and is like a city in miniature. Each of the 8 halls had similar mega-pavilions from industry leaders such as Samsung, Nokia, IBM, Telefonica, Vodafone, Orange, and others. These are gigantic and creatively designed and constructed (only to be taken-down, re-imagined as bigger and constructed again next year).

Device manufacturers like Huawei and Samsung are branching out from smartphones to all types of connected products and services such as Internet of Things or IOT, virtual reality (VR) platforms, special cameras, all the way to banking and payments (Apple – the leader and definer of what is cool in the mobile world – however, never attends or puts up a pavilion. That is, I guess, is part of its “being different” strategy).

The Huawei Pavilion

Mobile Network Operators (MNO’s) are also focusing their energy and resources on similar things (IOT, VR).  But perhaps to clearly demonstrate the need to differentiate themselves they made sure their pavilions were highly colourful.

The Orange pavilion – Orange of course.

Telefonica pavilion – garishly Pink

THE INTERNET OF THINGS (IOT)

IOT was a key theme for everyone involved in mobile communications because in the future not just people but billions of objects will be connected to the Internet. Tiny sensors on these objects will collect and transmit data back to cloud opening up a whole new world of controlled objects that will enable such things as driverless cars, intelligent public transport, connected personal items, and will also radically re-engineer manufacturing and distribution.

The Mercedes connected “autonomous car”

How big IOT will be is represented by the infographic below.

Source: Forbes.com

On the lighter side, seems like everyone is getting on board the IOT train. My favourite unexpected connected device at the show was the connected toothbrush from Oral-B. The “Genius” toothbrush “can detect which areas of the mouth are being neglected.”  Perhaps we can call this innovation the Internet of Teeth.

Virtual Reality

SAMSUNG stole the show with its VR theatre with a roller coaster ride powerful enough to wow any sceptics who think VR is all hype and no reality by showing them some high velocity near vertical virtual plunges (this is only second hand though, the queue to secure a place in the theatre was a bit too long).

But I tried their version of the smartphone enabled VR much like the Google cardboard box contraption that costs twenty dollars and holds a smartphone in front of your eyes showing 3D stills or movies. The Samsung smartphone was linked to a rotating remote “dual” camera (two cameras on a roller ball opposite to each other to cover 360 degrees) which moves with the head movement so that you can take in a 360 D – 3D view of a remote location and check out what it feels like, say, standing on top a mountain and staring down a thousand-metre cliff.

Long lines at the Samsung VR theatre

Checking out the Samsung 360D -3D VR for remote viewing experience

Digital Money

Interest in mobile payments had waned following the years of stagnation in the “SIM centric” NFC model which proposed storing credit card data securely on the SIM, the tiny microprocessor in the smartphone owned by mobile operators, who in turn demanded high fees for that privilege. It was highly secure but clunky to implement and expensive to run. Today, Apple Pay and Samsung Pay have brought around a revival by developing tokenisation services in conjunction with the card companies and using fingerprint authentication that make the whole thing a lot simpler to set-up and use.

I led a panel on digital money which generated a wide and interesting range of views on what we mean by digital money, why it is going to be big, and why have things, so far, been slow to take off. The diversity of views was due to the fact that the 5 heavy-weight pundits on the panel came from very different backgrounds. These were (in the order they were seated on the stage):

  • Andi Dervishi – Global Head of Fintech – IFC (World Bank)
  • Naveed Sultan Global Head of Treasury & Trade Solutions – Citibank
  • Anuj Nayar – Senior Director of Global Initiatives – PayPal
  • Yair Finzi – Founder & CEO – SecuredTouch
  • Hiroyuki Sato – CEO – DOCOMO Digital

The key points of discussion I will keep for another time as these require a few pages to do justice to the quality of insights shared by the panellists.

But to me, as I said in my introduction to the session, the purpose of money is to transfer value. At a broader level, I think there are 3 factors at play – things that are changing not just the idea of money and payments but re-shaping the way we think about and do things. These are:

  1. Connectivity: The fact that people are connected to each other (over wired or wireless devices) means that value exchange can take place between literally anyone who is digitally connected. Every consumer in the world will be able to pay as well as receive value from anyone. We will not just be consumers but also sellers – all of us
  2. Data: Connectivity is giving rise to massive volumes of data being generated. Data, as someone said, will be the “raw material” of our information age just like steel was the raw material for the industrial age
  3. Digitisation: As Nicholas Negroponte envisioned in his 1990’s seminal book “Being Digital”, the Internet will transform physical things (which he referred to as made up of atoms) to digital things (made up of bits) – the most obvious example of this is paper to tablet digital migration of books, newspapers, and magazines

In this context – the digitisation of value transfer – or digital money, is represented by the migration of physical cash over to electronic payments. There are various “vehicles” or digital means of payment from credit and debit cards, to new payment methods introduced for the unbanked such as mPesa and EasyPaisa, to “digital currencies” such as Bitcoin. The pace of monetary digitisation is different for different markets. Growth is gradual because customer habits take a long time to change and adoption of new technologies is driven not by the sophistication of the technology itself but by how useful and convenient it proves to be in the eyes of ordinary consumers. Within the medium term, according to audience polls taken during the session, digital money will be the preferred medium for value exchange and physical cash will be the exception.