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MWC 2018 remembered more for political unease than tech

The climate of Barcelona, political and weather-wise, stood out at a tech show that failed to impress beyond the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S9.

Katie Collins/CNET

Snowflakes begin to fall upon Nokia's makeshift Finnish village at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona.

For a moment, I'm charmed by the company's all-in commitment to re-creating a scene straight out of Lapland on the Mediterranean coast, via what I presume is a fake snow machine. But then it dawns on me: there is nothing fake about the flakes clinging to the stray strands of hairs dancing in front of my face.

My eyelashes twitch defensively, and I pull my coat tight around my shoulders as I shuffle back inside the convention center. The inclement weather, it occurs to me, is the perfect reflection of the frosty atmosphere I can sense in Barcelona right now.

MWC 2018 was my fifth year at the show, and for the first time I felt like what was going on in the wider city overshadowed the show. That's a reversal of the norm, when all things mobile dominate the city for a few days. There were two unusual occurrences at the show: the underwhelming announcements (short of Samsung) and the overwhelming sense of political tension in the city. The snowy and rainy weather added an extra wrinkle.

It's been a little more than a week since the show ended, and most of the announcements have already faded from memory. That the protests still ring in my mind underscores the state of doldrums that has hit the mobile industry. It may just be part of the inevitable as the smartphone business has clearly peaked, with companies struggling to introduce meaningful, head-turning changes to handsets.

This year was unique for other reasons. Even from within the bubble of the show it was impossible to ignore that Barcelona was not at peace with itself.


One Spanish flag among Catalonian independence supporters in Barceloneta.

Katie Collins/CNET

Down by the sea in the Barceloneta neighborhood of the city, each balcony on an apartment building displayed emblems of support for an independent Catalonia -- except for one, right in the center like a bull's-eye, over which was draped the Spanish flag.

I posted a picture on my Instagram Stories of looped yellow symbols I spied graffitied on the floors and walls in the left-leaning district of Gracia. Someone I didn't know messaged me with a warning: "I recommend you to be very sensitive about it with the Catalans because it's very tense at the moment," they told me.


Graffiti in Gracia.

Katie Collins/CNET

This is not my fight, nor the fight of anyone visiting the city for MWC. But as the show's banners fluttered in the wind along with the Catalan and Spanish flags on the eve of the show, business and politics got a little too close for comfort for a brief, uneasy moment.

King Felipe of Spain was in town, but not everyone was happy about it. The king comes every year for the show, but following the failed referendum in October 2017, his presence was more contentious than usual. I saw it firsthand in the protest that sprung up in the heart of the city.

Suited executives from around the world landing in Barcelona on Sunday evening were greeted by traffic jams and the clanging sounds of people all over the city standing on their balconies beating their pots and pans in unison.

If only anything at the show could leave a similar impression.

Wandering from to meeting to meeting, I encountered many executives with little to show and even less to say. Samsung's big unveiling of the Galaxy S9 scared off some of its rivals and eclipsed the efforts of others. And even the Galaxy S9, which offered the same camera in a similar body, wasn't blowing anyone away.

A few companies tried to make a splash. HMD Global, the startup making Nokia smartphones, introduced the Nokia 8110, also known as the Matrix phone. But the startup was hoping recapture the lightning in the bottle it enjoyed with last year's similarly nostalgia-inducing 3310, and the novelty was starting to wear thin.


Nokia's Sunday press conference.

Katie Collins/CNET

Then there was the Asus Zenfone 5, which was essentially a cheaper iPhone X, complete with the notch. Huawei hooked up a smartphone to drive a car, but the phone was a model that's been out for several months.

Unlike previous years where there's been a new trend to get excited about (VR! Wearables! Alexa!), there was just more of the same. Sure, there was 5G, which carriers are promising will show up this year, but you can't really get your hands on network coverage.

On the keynote front, we've fallen considerably from headliners like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg or Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Instead, we saw a discussion over net neutrality between FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and EU Commissioner Andrus Ansip. Unfortunately, it was held in a room filled with executives around the world who didn't care much about the issue.  

"This isn't interesting to the audience," shouted one man. Others murmured in agreement.

When time passes, the myriad announcements shotgunned out during the week tend to fade into one or two big items. MWC 2015, for example, was the year of the HTC Vive and the first time people were left thinking VR was the next big thing (turns out, it wasn't). MWC 2017 will be remembered for Nokia's big comeback and the rebirth of the 3310.

As I look back at this year's show, it's unclear if I'll remember much beyond the protests.

At least there's next year's MWC to look forward to.

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