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Mobile companies hosting MWC-like events in Barcelona dropping out

The odds of a "shadow" Mobile World Congress are falling as Oppo and Xiaomi delay their events.

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Mobile World Congress in Barcelona won't take place this year because of coronavirus worries.

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After the coronavirus canceled Mobile World Congress 2020, many attendees still held out hope for something to take place in Barcelona, Spain. Some companies already had executives in Europe, and many others had nonrefundable travel plans. But on Thursday, the possibility for a sort of "shadow show" seemed highly unlikely. 

Oppo and Xiaomi said they'd reschedule their phone launches, originally slated for MWC. They'd earlier been mulling plans to proceed with their events in Barcelona, even though the official conference won't take place. Huawei, the world's second-biggest phone maker, hasn't yet made a decision about its event, scheduled for Feb. 23. A Huawei spokesperson said the company should know more Friday. 

"Oppo respects and understands GSMA's decision to cancel the MWC Barcelona 2020 event," the Chinese handset maker said in a statement. "After serious consideration, we have also decided to reschedule the OPPO Find X2 Global Launch Event, originally scheduled on 22nd February." Oppo plans to hold the event for its newest flagship 5G phone sometime in March. 

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"After much consideration, Xiaomi has postponed its Mi 10 launch event -- originally scheduled for Feb. 23 in Barcelona," the company said. "We apologize for any inconvenience and will absolutely share the updated timing and location once confirmed."

Annual show MWC brings together companies from across the world, with many using the weeklong trade show as the place to introduce their newest smartphones. This year was expected to feature new 5G phones from nearly every major Android vendor, as well as updates about the networks running the new superfast connectivity. Though 5G became a reality last year, this year is when it could go mainstream. 

MWC is key to the mobile industry for two big reasons: It's where vendors get attention for their newest devices, and it's where companies hammer out deals behind the scenes. That includes getting carriers to agree to offer devices from smaller players that don't go by the name of Apple or Samsung. This year's MWC was officially slated to run from Feb. 24 to 27, with press meetings starting as early as Feb. 21.

On Wednesday, though, GSMA called off the entire conference. The show's organizer said the coronavirus and its associated disease, COVID-19, had made it "impossible" for the show to proceed.

The new coronavirus was discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December. As of Thursday, the strain had infected more than 60,000 people and claimed more than 1,300 lives. It's spread beyond China's borders to places like the US, Japan and Australia. Authorities around the world have been limiting travel and enforcing quarantines to guard against the spread. 

MWC's cancellation disrupts launches -- and dealmaking -- for more than 2,000 companies that planned to attend the show. For most, it will mean holding their own events or simply putting out press releases to unveil their newest gadgets. Many could delay their product launches altogether while they figure out what to do. Ultimately, we may all have to wait longer to hear about, and buy, the latest gadgets. And the implications of fewer behind-the-scenes meetings aren't yet known. Because all major mobile companies attend MWC (except for Apple), partnerships are often struck at the show.

As of Wednesday, some companies, particularly the Chinese mobile vendors were considering proceeding with their already planned Barcelona events. GSMA had required Chinese attendees to quarantine executives outside China for two weeks ahead of the show. Huawei and Oppo, among others, had already stationed their China-based teams in Europe to make sure they were healthy ahead of MWC.

Now it appears most will hold events on their own. 

"The cancellation of MWC, due to coronavirus, will present a range of short and medium term challenges to the smartphone industry this year, and could have far reaching consequences moving forward," Futuresource analyst Stephen Mears said. "The smartphone industry in particular, having contracted for the last two sequential years, was in dire need of a win."