MWC malaise: why a canceled conference has me feeling crushed

For the first time since 2012, my winter won’t involve me spending a week soaking in the wireless industry at MWC. I wish I weren’t overstating things to say that I feel gutted about this.

GSMA, the organization behind the trade show earlier known as Mobile World Congress, canceled the conference that drew 109,000-plus people last year–a week and a half in advance, and because of fear instead of evidence. The novel coronavirus afflicting China is a real threat, but it’s also remained almost completely confined to that country. And two weeks ago, GSMA announced security measures that essentially blackballed everybody from mainland China who hadn’t already left the country.

FCB logo Camp NouBut then a sequence of companies with the resources to know better decided to pull out of the show anyway: Ericsson, LG, Sony, Cisco, Facebook, Nokia, Amazon, Intel, AT&T… and on and on. After enough bold-face names had self-ejected from MWC, the only suspense left was when GSMA would take the loss and the likely scorn of the Barcelona and Catalan governments that had rightly stated no health emergency existed.

I won’t eat too much of a financial loss. I got half of my Airbnb payment back, while my airfare will be good for a future United flight (spoiler alert: likely). Friends of mine who booked refund-proof flights and lodging are harder up (one’s out at least $2,000). Some of them have already said they’ll proceed with that week in Barcelona and get in meetings with industry types who also stuck with their travel arrangements.

I can’t justify that business proposition but do feel a little jealous of those people after my happy history in Barcelona. MWC 2013 was the first international business trip I self-financed, and that trip cemented BCN as one of my favorite airport codes to have on my calendar. The show provided a sweeping overview of phones, networks and apps around the world that I couldn’t get at CES. And its logistics–from the moving walkways connecting the halls of the Fira Gran Via to Barcelona’s extensive and efficient metro and commuter-rail network–made CES look even more inadequate in that department.

MWC opened my eyes to all the different ways the wireless industry works outside the U.S.–as in, I would have covered the market better at the Post if I’d made this trip sooner, except the paper was too cheap to spring for that. At first, I didn’t sell enough stories from MWC to recoup my own travel costs (granted, I was also getting paid a lot more then), but after a few years of practice I got a better grip on my MWC business model and started clearing a decent profit. Making this a successful business venture ranks as one of my prouder achievements as a full-time freelancer.

I also improved my travel-hacking skills from that first year, in which booking flights in January left me with a seven-hour layover in Brussels on the way there and a two-stop itinerary home with a tight connection in Zurich that shrank to 20 minutes when my flight left BCN late. MWC 2017, in which I was able to leverage a United upgrade certificate to ensconce myself in seat 2A on a Lufthansa A330 home to Dulles, may be my most comfortable business trip ever.

Barcelona sculptureThe time-zone gap between Spain and any possible editor in the States also allowed me to explore my new favorite Spanish city. I carved out hours to visit all of Antonio Gaudí’s landmarks–yes, you should visit Casa Milà and Sagrada Familia–and spent not enough time getting lost in streets that sometimes weren’t wide enough to allow my phone to get a solid GPS location.

Barcelona has its issues, like seemingly annual transit strikes and the elevated risk of pickpocketing. But getting to go there for work has been an immense privilege.

This year was supposed to extend this recent tradition, but instead it will represent an interruption–at best. As my friend and MWC co-conspirator Sascha Segan explains in this essay at PCMag, knifing this year’s installment could easily lead to MWC going to another city in Europe. Or not happening at all again.

That makes me sad. Seeing the world retreat in unreasoning fear makes me angry.

MWC 2020 brings a novel conference concern

I haven’t finished putting together my schedule for MWC Barcelona later this month, but my calendar for that trade show is already getting culled.

Three major tech firms–Ericsson, LG and Nvidia–have pulled out of the wireless industry’s global gathering, citing fears of the novel coronavirus. Nvidia is no key player in the industry, but LG remains significant to smartphones. And Ericsson not only has a major 5G-infrastructure business, its MWC exhibit has been a reliable source of a free lunch.

The rest of the show appears set to go on as usual, although with unusual precautions. ZTE announced last week that it will have senior executives attending the show quarantine themselves in Europe for two weeks beforehand and require all Barcelona-bound employees to have been symptom-free for 14 days prior. GSMA, the organization that runs MWC, said two weeks ago it will disinfect public areas frequently and advise everybody at the show to stick to a no-handshake rule and wash their hands frequently.

My calendar still has MWC on it, and that remains the case with other tech journalists I know–and whose judgment I trust. The show is still on and news and networking will still happen there, while the actual risk appears quite low in the context of MWC’s distance from China and the health screenings now imposed on the dwindling number of passengers from there.

But the risk is not zero, not with that many Chinese companies set to exhibit at MWC. I would like to think that they will all exercise the same care as ZTE. But I suppose prudence may require me to avoid an entire country’s exhibits… which, considering that China’s smartphone industry is already walled off from the West thanks to Google being a non-participant there, was already part of my MWC coverage plans.

And I will, of course, wash my hands frequently and not shake anybody else’s. I’m thinking that bowing slightly to strangers and exchanging fist-bumps with friends will be reasonable alternatives.

Weekly output: value-priced Android phones, Star Alliance lounges, Howard Schultz, bots and bias

AUSTIN–I’m here for my eighth SXSW conference, but only my second with a speaking role. And this one, unlike the tech-policy panel I moderated here in 2012, came together much later in the game.

3/4/2019: MWC highlights include affordable smartphones, not just foldable ones, USA Today

This MWC recap covers a few phones coming to the U.S. market, plus one that’s not–but whenever Xiaomi does bring its budget-priced Android phones here, a lot of other vendors will find themselves in serious trouble.

3/6/2019: The Lounges You Didn’t Know You Could Use on Domestic Flights, The Points Guy

I’ve had this how-to post in my head ever since the first time a United 1K elite told me he had no idea he could use the Lufthansa lounge at Dulles.

3/10/2019: Howard Schultz just showed he doesn’t have a grasp of the issues, Yahoo Finance

I saw not one but two talks by the former Starbucks CEO–his morning SXSW talk and a later appearance before an entrepreneurs’ group. They left me convinced of Schultz’s ethical-capitalist aspirations and of his fundamental unseriousness in talking about such issues as health care and the definition of “socialism.”

SXSW 2019 mic

3/10/2019: On Bots and Bias: When What Machines Learn Is Wrong, SXSW

I basically vultured my way into moderating this panel. Speakers Anamita Guha, with IBM Watson, Pandorabots’ Lauren Kunze, and Dashbot’s Justina Nguyen had gotten their topic approved months ago but needed a moderator, and when my friend Mike Masnick asked in a Feb. 20 tweet if any journalists he knew wanted that gig, I replied almost immediately that I did. Fortunately, the short-notice panel prep did not turn out to be a problem. My fellow panelists were all aces and capably explained this complicated subject.

Weekly output: EU digital copyright, MWC (x4), USB-C headphone-jack adapters, HoloLens 2, tech’s privacy gap, 5G phones, good affordable phones

I came home from Barcelona Thursday, then further trashed my jet-lagged, MWC-damaged sleep cycle Friday night by staying up until 3 a.m. to watch the liftoff of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule on its debut, unmanned flight to the International Space Station. I assure you that was worth the multiple naps I needed Saturday afternoon.

For more from MWC 2019, see my Flickr album after the jump.

2/25/2019: How Europe could cement American online dominance, Yahoo Finance

The proposed changes to copyright law nearing a final vote in the European Parliament are criminally stupid.

2/25/2019: U.S.-Huawei fight becomes focus of Barcelona’s trade show, Yahoo Finance

I talked to host Alexis Christoforous via Skype over a bad connection about Huawei’s role in the industry. For a second Yahoo video hit that day–I haven’t been able to find a link to that–I switched to a spot in the press center that not only had much better WiFi but also had a good backdrop: the MWC hashtag on a wall visible behind me.

2/26/2019: Foldable phones are taking over the Mobile World Congress, Yahoo Finance

I made another appearance on Yahoo’s morning show, once again in the press center. The prop for my laptop each time? A trash bin dragged into position in front of my chair.

2/27/2019: Why a USB-C headphone adapter can’t amount to jack, USA Today

A friend’s report last October that a third-party USB-to-3.5-mm adapter didn’t work with his phone led me to realize I didn’t hate the removal of headphone jacks from phones quite enough.

2/27/2019: How Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 is bringing augmented reality to your job, Yahoo Finance

Before heading out to MWC, I e-mailed a couple of friends who have been developing on HoloLens for a while, then followed up to get their impressions of the new version.

2/28/2019: Why tech still can’t explain its own requests for your data, The Parallax

I wrote this essay after yet another bout of outrage over tech privacy that was made worse an inability to explain things clearly to customers (as opposed to investors and advertisers).

2/28/2019: No, you don’t need a 5G phone yet, Yahoo Finance

I know, I’m usually cranky about the first generation of anything. But in the case of 5G, the limits and likely high costs of the first generation of phones compatible with this new wireless standard make them an especially unwise purchase.

3/1/2019: The best cheap phones from Mobile World Congress, Yahoo Finance

I had meant to file this early in my flight back from Barcelona to Newark, but the already-sluggish WiFi was particularly hostile towards Gmail and Google Docs, leaving me unable to file or e-mail my editor for much of the flight.

3/3/2019: The weirdest gadgets from MWC 2019, Yahoo Finance

I wrote much of this short, fun list of bizarre MWC hardware at Newark and then on the short flight from EWR to DCA, then banged out the rest at National Airport before taking Metro home–some 18 hours after my day had begun on the other side of the Atlantic.

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Weekly output: tech talk with Mark Vena

MWC 2019 badgeBARCELONA–I’m now into my seventh Mobile World Congress, and the experience has been reminding me that it’s a treat to come to this city for work. Plus, the WiFi generally works at MWC.

(Minus: I’m typing this from my second morning press event at which there’s no free coffee. What kind of monsters run these things?)

2/21/2019: Moor Insights & Strategy Podcast (2-21-19), What’s Hot in Tech

I talked to analyst Mark Vena, an occasional source, about 8K television, cord cutting, Samsung’s Galaxy S10 announcements, and foldable phones. He also gave me a little grief about my city’s football team, and I can’t blame him for that one bit.

Weekly output: AirPlay gaps, smart-home security

This will be a short workweek for me on both ends. I can’t expect many people to answer my e-mails tomorrow, and then the second half of Friday will be occupied by me starting my journey to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress. This trip will be seventh to MWC; if you will be heading there for your first time, you may appreciate the cheat sheet I wrote last year.

2/13/2019: More smart TVs are getting Apple AirPlay but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to use it, USA Today

Now that connected televisions from Samsung and others are arriving with support for Apple’s AirPlay in-home media streaming built-in, many more people are likely to discover how many cable-TV apps disable this output option.

2/15/2019: A new tactic for smart-home security: shaming Walmart, Yahoo Finance

I wrote about an open letter from the Mozilla Foundation, the Internet Society and several other interest groups urging Amazon, Best Buy, Target and Walmart to stop selling insecure Internet-of-Things hardware. One complicating factor: There isn’t any canonical list of secure or insecure IoT gear that a retailer or a customer could consult. The best such option at the moment seems to be Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included, which excludes a great many devices.

Weekly output: Android Go edition, wireless charging

AUSTIN–Although Mobile World Congress happened two weeks ago, my coverage of it continued this week with a couple of posts that I wrote before coming here Friday for my seventh SXSW in a row.

3/8/2018: If $100 is your limit for smartphones, good news is coming with Android Go, USA Today

I used my USAT column to note a positive development in Android: a version of Google’s operating system built to run well on cheap smartphones that would otherwise likely get stuck with an obsolete Android release.

3/11/2018: These companies want to create truly wireless charging, Yahoo Finance

This post about two wireless-charging companies that I met at Mobile World Congress two weeks ago should have been written sooner. But then I had a tree snap the wires bringing power to our house–the irony is duly noted–and needed a few more days than I expected to get an analyst’s take on the company. Note that we had to correct the story after publication to correct the job titles of not one but two executives I quoted, making it one of the more snakebit things I’ve written lately.

 

 

 

Weekly output: headphone jack, 5G wireless, unlocked smartphones, broadband maps, wireless plans, MWC’s weirdest gadgets, Twitter spam

I had a terrific but exhausting week in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress and looked forward to a relaxing weekend at home–until Friday’s windstorm toppled the tree in our front yard and deprived our home of power until Sunday afternoon. As a result, most of the pictures in my Flickr MWC album haven’t seen any editing yet. And they may not until next week, since I have another short week: Friday, I head out of town again as SXSW brings me to Austin.

2/26/2018: The headphone jack isn’t dead yet, Yahoo Finance

I revisited a theme of last year’s MWC coverage to note that most phone vendors are not following Apple and Google’s foolish removal of the headphone jack. But with Sony, Huawei and Nokia introducing at least some models without that old but perfectly functional audio output, I’m not feeling too confident about the industry’s direction.

2/28/2018: How 5G wireless will soon supercharge the internet, Yahoo Finance

After years of hype about 5G, the next wireless standard is starting to look less vaporous–and some key industry figures are dialing back that hype.

2/28/2018: Don’t buy these smartphones through your carrier, Yahoo Finance

I’ve been arguing for years that you shouldn’t buy your phone from your wireless carrier, but at MWC three of the big four made that point for me by pricing the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus at least $70 over what you’d pay–with interest-free installment payments available–at Samsung’s own site.

CityLab broadband-map post2/28/2018: The Problem With America’s New National Broadband Map, CityLab

The Federal Communications Commission relaunched its broadband map, but the much better-looking version suffers from the same information gaps as ever. So does a privately-run site that draws on the same FCC filings as the map.

2/28/2018: The best cell phone plans, Wirecutter

I updated this guide to reflect more generous plans at many prepaid and resold services. But within a day of the revised guide’s publication, AT&T reworked its pricing for unlimited data, so we’ll have to update the guide yet again to account for that.

3/2/2018: The 6 strangest gadgets from Mobile World Congress 2018, Yahoo Finance

I had fun writing this look at the weirder hardware I saw at MWC–the last piece I filed from the show, shortly before they shut down the press room Wednesday night.

3/3/2018: Twitter spam, Al Jazeera

The news network’s Arabic-language channel had me on (overdubbed live into Arabic) to talk about an outbreak of Twitter spam in Saudi Arabia. The point I made: Going back to Usenet, every popular social platform has inevitably been abused by spammers and con artists.

Weekly output: locked phones, tax-return fraud

BARCELONA–Mobile World Congress officially starts tomorrow, but I’ve been here since Saturday morning and have already attended five vendor events here. The one you’ve read most about, Samsung’s unveiling of the Galaxy S9 and S9+ smartphones, is also the one MWC event I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t have to cover–my regular clients all got pre-briefed before the show and had copy ready when Samsung’s embargo expired. That freed me to take notes and play with the S9’s AR Emoji feature at my relative leisure instead of hunkering down with my laptop to file a report.

2/22/2018: Verizon’s decision to stop selling unlocked phones means travelers need to plan ahead, USA Today

Verizon’s impending move to lock phones it sells for some period after subscribers activate them won’t be as strict as its competitors’ policies, but it also reinforces the argument I’ve been making for years: Don’t buy your phone from your wireless carrier. So does the $70-above-list prices three of the big four carriers announced tonight for Samsung’s new phones.

Yahoo tax-return-fraud post2/23/2018: Tax return scammers are taking a big hit, Yahoo Finance

A year and a half ago, I’d started gathering string for a post about the problem of tax-return identity-theft fraud–sparked by my seeing a Facebook post from a friend who is both a privacy professional and a serial victim of that problem. For various lame reasons, I failed to turn those notes into a story at the time. But tax time inevitably rolled around again–and then the IRS served up a novel and more interesting news peg by making serious progress in reducing this problem.

Last-minute MWC advice

Having to spend a week in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress ranks as one of the easier problems to manage in the tech industry. I mean, would you rather go to CES?

But if you’re new to MWC, as I was only five years ago, the wireless industry’s global gathering can have its confusing moments. If so, the following advice may help you navigate your way around this trade show.

Fira Gran Via: MWC’s primary venue is a set of eight large halls that you can traverse much faster than the Las Vegas Convention Center, thanks to the overhead passages–most with moving walkways–that knit the Fira together. To get there, take the train: The L9 Sud Metro stops at the Europa | Fira and Fira stations, to the north and south of the Fira, while frequent commuter-rail trains from Espanya also stop at Europa | Fira.

Power and bandwidth: In addition to a plug adapter (you already have that in your bag, right?), you should also pack your laptop’s charger’s extension cord if it came with one. Distance from an outlet has nothing to do with that; a laptop power brick plugged into a plug adapter plugged into a wall outlet can easily fall out, but the extension cord will distribute that weight away from the outlet.

I hope you won’t show up to MWC with a locked phone that will prevent you from popping in a cheap prepaid SIM. But if your locked device is on Sprint or T-Mobile, you at least get free, slow and adequate roaming.

Eating and dining: Barcelona is one of the world’s great cities to eat and drink. Unfortunately, the press room in the Fira does not provide lunch, so you’ll have to forage elsewhere on the show floor (FYI, Ericsson’s exhibit in Hall 2 has offered a great free lunch the last few years). The press room does, however, offer an apparently inexhaustible supply of coffee from a bank of Nespresso machines, and plates of cookies occasionally show up there too.

Remember that dinner happens late in Spain, so don’t turn down a late-afternoon snack.

Getting around: Your MWC registration comes with a transit pass good Monday through Thursday; don’t just use it to commute to the Fira. Railfan tip: Because the L9 Sud line is automated, standing in the front of the train lets you enjoy the view of the tunnel ahead. Cheapskate tip: That line is also the most cost-effective way to and from the airport.

If you normally rely on Apple Maps, set it aside for the duration of MWC. This app still doesn’t offer transit directions in Barcelona–two and a half years after Apple bragged about adding transit navigation, which itself came nearly eight years after Google integrated the same in its own maps.

Barcelona has a not-undeserved reputation for pickpocketing. Don’t leave your wallet in an exposed and open pocket, and hang on to your bag or purse.

Other details:

If you’ve never seen Whit Stillman’s 1994 indie classic Barcelona, try to fix that before you depart. It’s not available on Netflix and Amazon’s free streaming, but you can rent it on Amazon, Google, iTunes and Vudu.

If you have some free time–by which I mean, if being six to nine time zones ahead of your editors gives you unsupervised time–try to spend some of it visiting architect Antoni Gaudí’s masterpieces. The Casa Milà apartment building and the Sagrada Família basilica aren’t as far out of your way from MWC as Park Güell; they all have a kind of magic about them.

On your way home, if you have mid-tier or higher status on American, Delta or United or have a Priority Pass membership, you’re eligible to visit the Sala VIP Miro lounge at BCN, upstairs to the left and downstairs after passport control for non-EU flights. Nobody will mistake it for a Lufthansa Senator Lounge, but it works for a pre-departure snack and a drink or two before a long day spent over the Atlantic.

Updated 3/1/2018 to correct and expand lounge-access directions.