The waning importance of the phone at MWC


BARCELONA, Spain -- Smartphones were expected to play a huge role here at this year's Mobile World Congress, and we've already seen a few major announcements from the likes of Samsung and LG. But many of the devices that scored some of the spotlight during the show's opening days weren't phones at all. And those companies that did showcase new phones often focused on features and functionality far beyond traditional uses such as calling, messaging and using apps.

Alcatel, which has quietly gained impressive traction in the U.S. over the past 12 to 18 months, got a jump on the show Saturday by introducing two new handsets. The company's new Idol 4S, which is the more expensive of the two and is likely to carry a price tag of roughly $500, includes some solid specs for the price point, but it also comes with packaging enabling users to turn the gadget into a virtual reality headset.

For its part, LG "broke the smartphone mold" at a media event Sunday with the introduction of the G5, which CEO Juno Cho described as a "theme park in your pocket." Whether consumers actually want that thing exactly is unclear, but the phone's modular design certainly illustrates how quickly smartphones are evolving: Users can transform it into a virtual reality headset, a 360-degree camera, a rolling home security device and other forms based on a variety of use cases.

Samsung also touted VR, but in a very different way: The Korean manufacturer hosted a major media event and immediately raised the eyebrows of attendees by adorning every seat in the venue with Gear VR, its virtual reality headset. Attendees were asked to put the gadget on their heads to view a VR demonstration that eventually introduced the company's new flagship handsets, the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge.  

Meanwhile, Huawei surprised some by introducing not a phone but the MateBook, a hybrid laptop/tablet with options such as a detachable keyboard, a smart stylus (the MatePen, naturally) and a laser pointer. The device runs Windows 10, is aimed at business users, and is designed to integrate closely with smartphones, offering features such as a thin form factor, 10 hours of battery life, and a fingerprint sensor.

Virtual reality is an important topic at this year's show, obviously, but the overriding theme in regard to smartphones here at MWC is that the traditional "phone" is growing less of a focal point. The phone plays an integral role in some of these devices, but in others it is tangential. The phone simply hasn't become the "hub" many envisioned it would.

Part of the reason for this is that the term "mobile" is no longer easily definable. While some of us still use the term to refer to cellular devices, networks and services, it's often used to refer to Wi-Fi-only devices (tablets, often) or other gadgets that may not have constant, mobile access to a cellular network.

But it seems the ubiquity of the phone as we know it -- the piece of hardware that we're used to carrying around in our pockets or purses -- is living on borrowed time. As connectivity comes to more devices, it gives manufacturers and developers opportunities to deliver phone-like capabilities in a wide range of devices and services. And while the phone has become a universal device, it's unlikely we'll see a universal hardware platform that follows it.

Instead, we're likely to see multiple devices serve as our phone depending on context and individual tastes. A gamer's primary phone may be a mobile gaming device; a professional driver's will likely be the car. Of course, for some of us the phone itself will remain the primary connectivity device because of its mobility and its versatility.

But it won't be too long before most of us are no longer carrying little handsets everywhere we go to stay in touch with the world. The challenge for today's handset manufacturers will be in developing new connected devices that can allow us to finally stop digging around for a dedicated phone every time we hear a buzzing sound. And the challenge for carriers will be to provide the best optimized service to users in all kinds of scenarios and environments. Those who can do that will thrive in a post-smartphone world. --Colin

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