Industry Voices—Lowenstein’s View: Impressions from the AT&T Shape event

Mark Lowenstein Industry Voices

This past weekend, AT&T held its second annual Shape conference, billed as the convergence of technology and entertainment. The event is also, in part, a successor to the company’s major Developers event, which was held for several years at CES. As one of a small group of analysts who attended Shape, I thought I’d share some top-level impressions.

Aptly or ironically, Shape was held at the Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank. We all enjoyed the fireside chat between Randall Stephenson and Judge Leon. OK, seriously, given the impending June 12 date, AT&T must have been a tad frustrated at what they couldn’t really talk about, especially at an event on their soon-to-be home turf (do they get a discount next year?).

This was not your garden variety tech conference. There were some 14,000 attendees, many of them the local public who were able to attend for free. It was a mix of panel sessions on topics ranging from AI to AR/VR and eSports, chats and presentations from industry luminaries and celebrities, including Isaa Rae, Shawn Combs, and Ava DuVernay, demos of new devices and immersive entertainment experiences, and a short film and entertainment app competition.

For me, there were four big-picture takeaways from the two days spent at Shape: how AT&T is positioning itself for the future; some of the experiences that will drive 5G and the next generation of networks; the increasing fusion of entertainment and technology; and the incredible tools available to what seems to be a burgeoning creative class.

Since this was sort of a public event, it was very interesting to see how AT&T is positioning itself as “not your father’s telecom company,” particularly given the set of assets it has and (will likely soon) acquire. AT&T’s strategy and products sort of took a back seat. In my view, AT&T had a twofold objective here. One is to alter the perception of the company as the one you pay a monthly subscription for some combination of wireless, broadband, and pay TV services. AT&T wants to be perceived as an innovator—more Austin than Dallas, more Tesla than GM, in a matter of speaking. And just as we’re seeing a decentralization in entertainment, we’re also seeing a decentralization of tech. This is certainly driving the trend toward more open, software defined networks.

Second, AT&T also wants to be and be seen as a key technology enabler for the next generation of immersive app and entertainment experiences—and not just a connectivity provider and content distributor.

With all the M&A going on in media and entertainment—and the wave sure to come if the TW deal gets approved next week—the delta between AT&T and the other ‘telcos’ widens. AT&T is much more Comcast than it is Verizon or Vodafone.

It was also very interesting to see who AT&T selected to be among its major on-stage featured guests and speakers. This was a young, diverse, and highly creative group, very much reflecting the audience that was there. No affront meant here, but the stars of the show were not the John Donovans and the Brian Krazniches—they were Sean Combs, Issa Rae, Kadi Don, and the eSports commentators. And with the app challenge, short film competition and other elements of its showcase, AT&T wants to be seen as helping to fund and provide the tools for creativity—and not just the sellers of connectivity or distributors of content. Definitely a step in the Time Warner direction, which one would imagine will be in a whole other league at next year’s Shape event if things go as planned. 

Shape was also a great opportunity to showcase some of the innovation and new businesses that will drive the next generation of connectivity, shaped by gigabit broadband, 5G wireless, edge computing, and software-defined networks. There were some cool “holographic” 5G demos demonstrating the value of low latency networks. A bevy of AR/VR and other immersive entertainment applications helped drive home the need for edge networks. And the vast majority of apps that progressed in AT&T’s entertainment App Challenge were video or music centric.

In terms of the actual demos, a few takeaways:

  • 5G Demo. A virtual reality demo with partners Ericsson and Intel on a working 28 GHz radio showed the benefits of low latency as well as what you can do with a 400 MHz channel.
  • RED Hydrogen One. We caught an early glimpse of the phone. The holographic imagery and A3D surround sound (no additional equipment needed) were gorgeous. The phone is going to cost $1,300, but could be a hit with the image/imagery set.
  • Several AR/VR displays. My takeaway here is that there are lots of cool companies working on some very cool stuff…and we’re just starting to get to the point where there’s some fairly affordable mainstream equipment, especially for the gamer set. It’s easy to imagine all sorts of incredible capabilities that AR can bring to the enterprise. But VR still seems clunky and complex, and a few years away from being mass market.   
  • AI and Entertainment. There was some great discussion about how AI and big data (already a dated term) are driving audience analytics and also enable a host of new tools to help connect to/build an audience.

It was also fascinating to see how the nature of entertainment is changing. The lower barriers to entry, enabling the ability to make a pretty good quality film with an iPhone and laptop PC editing software, is part of the wave powering YouTube, Facebook, Snap, and so on. But the other piece of this is the growth of immersive entertainment experiences, where the consumer is also the co-creator. As an example: there are more than 100 “Escape Rooms” in L.A., up from like, zero, three years ago.

I’m not 100% sure what the “hard” ROI for AT&T was with this event. But given the audience and the energy, I think there was a lot of “soft ROI” here.

Two final items that reflect the broader tone of the times. One was a quote from Sean Combs, who in addition to being a great entertainer is one of the most astute business executives of our era: “We are [moving away from] gatekeepers putting us in narratives that aren’t who we are.”

And, a quote from John Donovan: “This is a time of transition for companies, who are [being defined for] not just what they do but who they are.” With all the negative stuff that’s happened in the tech-verse in the past year, let’s remember that he said that and let’s hold AT&T and its peers to it.  

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem.  Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.