Forget Galaxy Fold: 5G and foldable phones go big at MWC 2019

With international intrigue and a 5G coming-out party, this show doesn’t need the boost of a Samsung event.

This is poised to be a big show.

Samsung and the MWC Barcelona conference have long had an up-and-down relationship. The energy at the trade show has ebbed and flowed depending on whether the world's largest handset maker decides to hold its big first-half phone launch in Spain. If Samsung shows up, there's a noticeable perk in interest.

On Wednesday, just days before this year's MWC kicks off, Samsung debuted its Galaxy S10 lineup and its Galaxy Fold. In San Francisco.

You'd think this would take the wind out of the MWC sails. But between the mix of unique new devices, some international intrigue and, of course, 5G, the show has a good shot of standing on its own without Samsung. MWC traditionally offers you a window into what the smartphone world will look like over the next year. But with 5G, you could be seeing the foundation for how things evolve over the next few years.

Now playing: Watch this: MWC 2019 phone trends we'll see

"This will be the most consequential MWC since the launch of 4G," said Wayne Lam, an analyst at HIS Markit.

Where CES in January offered a modest tease of what 5G would look like, MWC will be the proper launch of the next-generation cellular technology. After years of hype that 5G will change our lives by connecting everything to a super-fast and super-responsive network, some of the deployments are actually going live.

Heck, even President Donald Trump is tweeting about it.

Another reason to be excited is the potential to see more foldable smartphones in the works. Samsung may have kicked things off with the Galaxy Fold, but Huawei and Xiaomi may have their own flexible devices. LG, likewise, has an intriguing second-screen attachment for one of its flagship phones.

The other wrinkle is how Huawei will handle being in the spotlight at the show while dealing with increased global scrutiny over the security of its products. The company typically has a massive presence at MWC, and this year won't be any different.

So yeah, it's going to be a wild and weird show.

5G, 5G, 5G

It's 2019, and 5G is finally here. South Korea has switched on the service, although customers and deployments remain limited. In the US, AT&T has real 5G (not the fake 5G E) in a dozen markets, while Verizon has had its 5G Home service up since late last year (some quibble about whether it's real 5G).


A booth at CES touting 5G. It'll get more intense at MWC.


There's no question we'll see slivers of real 5G deployments throughout the conference, with big-name companies like Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia likely putting up test networks in the Fira Gran Via Convention Center.

It'll be a good field test of these networks, given the sheer foot traffic and competing cellular demands of so many different deployments.

MWC will also be a good place to see the broader applications beyond a faster smartphone connection. Ericsson in the past has shown how a responsive network can help you remotely drive an excavator thousands of miles away, while Huawei has shown off the potential for smart cities.

"The mobile industry is moving forward at rapid pace, and we expect the most significant theme of MWC Barcelona to be how 5G will change the world, and in particular the role it will play in ushering in a new era of intelligent connectivity," said Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA, the trade group that puts on the show.

Not just Samsung

The Galaxy Fold stole the thunder away from the Galaxy S10 at Samsung Unpacked. Foldable phones at MWC could do the same.

While Samsung has gotten the jump on the competition, companies like Huawei and Xiaomi could have the last laugh.

Will anyone challenge the Galaxy Fold in the new foldables category?


While the Galaxy Fold wowed audiences with its demo, Samsung opted not to let anyone get too close to it, and the phone was MIA when the demo area opened up. Another company could steal the spotlight by offering people a closer hands-on with their foldable devices.

At CES, I tried out the Flexpai from Chinese startup Royole. While the software was buggy, the folding display did work well, and it was easily one of the more impressive things I saw at the show. The point is, the bar is low and tolerance for work-in-progress products is high when it comes to flexible phones.  

CNET reported that TCL is working on a family of foldable devices, and could offer a tease at the show too.

Read: Mate X: Huawei's $2,600 foldable phone steps up to Galaxy Fold with three screens, four rear cameras, 5G 

International intrigue

It's not all fun and games. One of the undercurrents of the show will be how Huawei deals with the questions over its conduct. The US has led the crusade against the company, with its Justice Department leveling numerous charges, including intellectual theft, fraud and obstruction of justice.

Meng Wanzhou, the company's chief financial officer and daughter of founder Ren Zhangfei, is incarcerated in Canada awaiting extradition to the US on some of the charges laid out by the Justice Department. Huawei has denied any wrongdoing, and Ren said in an interview with CBS This Morning that the move was politically motivated. (Note: CNET and CBS This Morning are both part of CBS.)


Huawei has a big presence planned at MWC.


Likewise, ZTE will be coming back from the brink after a settlement with the US Commerce Department over sanctions related to its work with North Korea and Iran. It kept a low profile at CES 2019, but is expected to back with a press conference in Barcelona.

Wild-card devices?

In the last few years at MWC, phones have emerged out of nowhere to captivate showgoers.

There's the mysterious LG smartphone with a second-screen attachment. It's not exactly a foldable smartphone, but it's a potentially unique innovation that gets us past the boring rectangular slab.


The retro Nokia "Matrix" phones turned heads last year.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Back in 2017, startup HMD Global, which makes phones using the Nokia brand, caught a lot of attention with its remake of the Nokia 3310, which perfectly tapped into the nostalgia trend that also saw the revival of the NES Classic.

HMD did it again last year with the Nokia 8110, also known as the Matrix phone. Leaks point to a phone with an astounding five cameras on the back.

Perhaps it'll go for a trifecta of retro phones. Or someone like Chinese phone maker Oppo will come out of nowhere to wow crowds.

With Samsung out of the mix, anything could happen at MWC.

The story originally published at 5 a.m. PT.