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.

Weekly output: WebKit, Mobile World Congress (x3), Tech Night Owl, Facebook scams, e-mail nags

This has been a really good week. Tiring (courtesy of a few days of walking around Barcelona for Mobile World Congress and well over 24 hours spent in airplanes and airports), but good.

2/25/2013: In Mobile, It’s A WebKit World And We Just Browse In It. Is That Okay?, Disruptive Competition Project

I wrote a long, wonky piece on the state of competition in mobile-browser layout engines, in which the open-source WebKit code used by Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome has pretty much locked up the market. Is an open-source monopoly okay? At first, I thought it might be–then I changed my mind.

USAT MWC report2/27/2013: Plus-sized phones dominate wireless trade show, USA Today

I like filing from a new dateline. Here, circumstances found me writing this Android-centric overview of Mobile World Congress for USAT’s site. Note the inevitable Android-versus-iPhone flame war in the comments–and a couple of futile attempts by me to restore some perspective there.

2/27/2013: My Fellow Americans, We Really Do Have A Strange Wireless Market, Disruptive Competition Project

Ten years ago, I was tired of hearing people yammer on about how the U.S. should have called it a day and adopted the same GSM wireless standard as Europe and most of the rest of the world. Here, I explain how I got that wrong–and how the peculiarly carrier-driven market here does not serve customers well. Big oversight in the piece: not mentioning the controversy over the recriminalization of phone unlocking in the States.

2/28/2013: The Wide, Wild World Of Phones, Discovery News

A higher-level recap of MWC for Discovery News that objects to some of the more dubious trends the show spotlighted in the wireless industry. I really don’t know where some Android vendors are coming from these days.

3/2/2013: March 2, 2013 — Chrysta Olson, Rob Griffiths, Jeff Erwin, Lysa Myers, and Rob Pegoraro Tech Night Owl Live

Tune in to hear me discuss the state of the wireless business as seen before, during and after MWC. Bonus: host Gene Steinberg’s confused silence after my lame attempt at dropping a comedic reference to the Gadsden Purchase.

3/3/2013: Q&A: How to avoid Facebook scams? Be a skeptic, USA Today

A friend fell for an old Facebook scam, then made up for spamming me with a bogus ad by documenting how it seemed to work. My column wraps up with a tip about minimizing noisy notifications from social networks that I might have credited to Clay Johnson’s book The Information Diet, except that my own info-diet has not yet granted me the time to read it.

I used most of this week’s updates on Sulia to share observations from MWC, many of which wound up being ingredients in later stories about the show–for instance, first impressions of the enormous Asus Fonepad and the open-source Firefox and Ubuntu mobile operating systems. I also related PayPal president David Marcus’s skeptical view of Near Field Communication smartphone payments and how the Washington Nationals are blowing off NFC with their new electronic season-ticketing system.

Weekly output: CES (x8), Java, Flash, browser crashes

CES week has usually been the single busiest workweek of the year, and this time around did not disappoint. It also featured perhaps my shortest and certainly my highest-profile TV appearance yet.

1/9/2013: Wild West Show: What’s Happening At CES?, The Motley Fool

About eight hours into what became a 14-hour workday, I chatted briefly with the Fool’s Rex Moore for a show-opening video segment about some of the trends I’d seen thus far.

1/9/2013: Live @ CES – Erik Fisher & Rob Pegoraro, Panasonic

As it did last year, Panasonic ran a series of interviews with tech-industry types, journalists,  athletes, politicians and various other guests from its CES exhibit. Here, I discussed the intersection of sports and digital media with the Sports Business Journal’s Eric Fisher and host Jordan Burchette. I trust nobody was surprised to see me rant yet again about the idiocy of regional blackouts for live game coverage.

1/10/2013: CES 2013, Part 1: Tech To Open Or Close Markets, Disruptive Competition Project

I evaluated some of the more talked-about CES appearances in terms of whether they might entrench incumbents in a market or offer an opening to their challengers.

PBS NewsHour CES recap1/10/2013: At Consumer Electronics Show, Sorting the Go-Go Gadgets from the No-Go, PBS NewsHour

This show assessment for the NewsHour’s Rundown blog got a shout-out on that night’s NewsHour broadcast, right after an interview of my old Post cubicle-mate Cecilia Kang. Which makes a certain amount of sense, since the piece’s length and tone made it the closest thing to the CES-recap columns I wrote for the Post for… wow, 14 years in a row.

Note that the first version of this posted had a stupid mistake in the description of 4K resolution; when I was trimming a paragraph on the technology, “million” wound up where “thousand” should have been, and it took a reader’s comment to bring that to my attention. (That’s only one of the reasons why I try to read every comment.)

1/11/2013: Tech Talk: 01/11, CBS News Tech Talk

Larry Magid, a longtime tech journalist I enjoy running into at events like this, saw fit to include a sound bite from me in that day’s one-minute tech update.

1/11/2013: CES 2013: Three Ups, Three Downs, Discovery News

My CES recap for Discovery–also, my first in the site’s new design–covered the same trends I tackled in the NewsHour piece but benefited from another day’s worth of soaking in the show.

1/11/2013: CES 2013, Part 2: The Gadgets That Weren’t There, Disruptive Competition Project

I did a post like this back in 2011 that critiqued the absence of non-TiVo video recorders (among other things), didn’t think to return to the theme last year, but realized it would fit in well with DisCo’s focus on the ways outside factors distort and limit what the tech business can do.

1/11/2013: Earnings Surprises, Motley Fool Money

The Fool’s Chris Hill interviewed me about the show for the Fool’s weekly podcast. He had me on as a guest pretty regularly when I was at the Post; it was good to be back.

NBC Nightly News spot1/12/2013: Feds: Your Internet browser could be at risk, NBC Nightly News

An editor at NBC noticed the column I wrote for USA Today about Java security last spring and e-mailed to ask if they could interview me for that evening’s show. They recorded something like 30 minutes’ worth of footage; they asked good questions, didn’t cut off my answers and finished by asking if there was anything else I wanted this piece to say. Maybe 10 seconds of that wound up on the air, with me identified as a “USA Today Technology Writer.”

(I was worried they wouldn’t use any of it. Between the heat from the studio lights in NBC’s Nebraska Avenue offices and my own don’t-screw-this-up anxiety, I started getting a little flustered and began fumbling some of my answers.)

Anyway, now I can cross “be interviewed as an expert on a national nightly-news show” off the bucket list. And in yet another weird coincidence, that night’s broadcast also featured my friend Daniel Greenberg, one of my best freelance contributors at the Post, talking about video-game violence.

1/13/2013: How long will Flash survive?, USA Today

This week’s column looks at the persistence of Adobe Flash on the desktop and recants some of my earlier optimism about a quick sunset for that format. (Though I have to note that Discovery’s new design finally does away with Flash for slide shows, even older ones; I no longer feel guilty about linking out to those.) It also shares a few tips about talking crash-prone browsers out of their sulk.

Update, 10:37 a.m. In the midst of looking up all those audio and video appearances, I forgot to note my too-long-for-Twitter updates on Sulia: a rant about Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs’ chaotic keynote, my experience trying “brainwave cat ears,” a note about the relative absence of 3-D TV from the show floor, a micro-essay about CES’s continued gender gap, and a report of a prototype screen that can raise and lower individual buttons, and many more.

(With 15 of these 500-to-1,000-character posts a week, I can’t see adding them all to the weekly roundup, any more than I’d inventory my tweets. But maybe calling out a few highlights will work.)