I'm a fan of Las Vegas. It's a great town for people watching, good eats, and getting tiny drinks for free. I recognize, however, that it's a polarizing city. Like New Orleans or Atlanta, Vegas is one of those towns you either love or hate. It's different from those cities people have a hard time disliking – you know, like Austin, San Francisco…or Barcelona.
You probably see where I'm going here. If not, let me cut to the chase. Halfway between a visit to Vegas for CES and a visit to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress (MWC), I've had some time to think about the differences between these two behemoths of the trade show schedule. In the same way people often think of Vegas (tacky and commercial) and Barcelona (cosmopolitan) in very different terms, they think very differently about the two cities' flagship telecom and tech conferences. Sure they're both important, sprawling (some would say "zoo like") events, but MWC carries the type of sophistication you just can't manage to pull off when half of your exhibits are dedicated to drones, phone chargers, smartphone covers, 3D printers, and robot vacuum cleaners. One's positioned around consumer electronics and related gadgets. The other's about telecom innovation. At least that's the message the GSMA decided to send when they created the MWC tag line, "The Edge of Innovation."
For what it's worth, the "sophistication aura" is why I've given up any hope of MWC ever relocating to Vegas.
And yet, to call this type of thinking a gross exaggeration is fair. The MWC-CES dichotomy is an over-simplification.
On the one hand, it's undeniable that MWC is slowly becoming more like CES. Think about the upcoming iteration. You know there will be big device launches. You know everyone will be talking about wearables. There will be plenty of consumer-centric conference sessions like "Personalizing the Consumer Experience." (I hear the moderator is brilliant and may be distributing candy and puppies to people in the audience, BTW.) There will be plenty of awards and accolades given out to apps, devices, technologies, and services across the consumer ecosystem. No matter how some people might view it, MWC isn't just about telecom services, networks, and network technologies; it's about the ways in which all of these come together (along with consumer electronics) to deliver meaningful experiences.
Hopefully we all know this already.
That CES is becoming more MWC like, however, is something I've seen fewer people talk about. That's particularly surprising when you think about the big themes coming out of the show this year.
o Connected Car. There's no denying that flashy sports cars (orange or red, preferably) liven up an exhibit floor or that automotive accessories focused on connectivity open up all sorts of new consumer electronics sales and service opportunities. But, think back to last year when AT&T launched AT&T Drive with vendor partners including Ericsson, Accenture, Amdocs , and Jasper Wireless. That's right, connected cars are about more than cars or connected accessories. They're also about the platforms and services needed to deliver and manage a broader connected car offer.
o IoT. If the connected car is ultimately about connected experiences, the same holds for consumer IoT. Natch. But the story goes beyond that. Take my favorite pet fitness tracking company Fit Bark. Sure, they'll sell you a device that will tell you how much exercise your dog is getting. But they'll also admit that there's value in the data these devices will generate – think for vets or drug trials – and that this makes analytics and data security a key concern for them. If this sounds like the kind of stuff telecoms are thinking about, it shouldn't be surprising that Fit Bark was part of the Sprint Mobile Health Accelerator. At this point, you can now stop laughing at the concept of a fitness tracker for your dog.
o Digital Health. Seamless connectivity. Data analytics. Security. Operators trying to figure out how to monetize all of this. Take everything we just talked about above, roll it all together and it sounds a lot like the issues surrounding digital health, no?
o Video. We might not all be able to afford a tricked-out, connected Camaro, but an 88" 4K TV? Nope, I can't afford that either. But, like the connected car at CES, the video story was about more than just flashy eye candy. Take Cisco's presence. I mean, honestly, I like Cisco as much as the next guy and there's no denying it comes to CES to talk video. But not many people would call its Videoscape Cloud Services, cloud security, or "'Worldbox' featuring dual IP/QAM capabilities" flashy. That's okay; the services they enable will be key to making things like 4K TVs something telcos can benefit from. Think sizzle (4K TV) vs. steak (video infrastructure).
The theme here? Your nightly news might position CES as a gadget event, but the technologies and trends it encompasses reach well beyond consumer electronics and into the realm of the solutions and vendors that traditionally think of MWC as their stomping ground.
Ultimately, we need to face the facts; CES will never become MWC. It's too darn sprawling while simultaneously being too narrowly focused. Plus, the cases, stickers, and drones will always turn off the vendors and operators who feel they're above all that "noise." That doesn't mean it shouldn't evolve to be more like MWC with a focus on consumer ecosystems and consumer experiences…as well as the network solutions needed to deliver those experiences. For the telecom vendors not used to showing up, this means sending some people to Vegas for a few tiny drinks (they're free, remember) and insights into your customers' customers and the solutions needed to serve their needs.
Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.