Get ready for the Royal Rumble of phones at MWC

Next week's Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona will see plenty of new phones from big name players. Just not from Samsung.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
5 min read
The Fira Gran Via in Barcelona, Spain, home of Mobile World Congress

The Fira Gran Via in Barcelona, Spain, home of Mobile World Congress.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

It's going to get crazy in Barcelona.

Just about every heavy hitter in the wireless industry is bringing a shiny new phone to Mobile World Congress -- held this time each year in Spain's hippest metropolis -- each trying to out-wow the others with its latest wares.

But we won't see any new phones from Samsung. The Korean electronics giant will launch its newest tablets at the show, but plans to save its highly anticipated flagship Galaxy S8 smartphone for later this year.

That decision creates a vacuum that, ironically, may make this one of the more competitive shows in recent years. Over the past few years, the world's largest phone maker used the conference to launch the latest iteration of its Galaxy S line of phones, pretty much keeping the spotlight to itself.

Not this time. Now, Samsung's cross-town rival LG is looking to move past last year's flop with its successor G6 phone. Meanwhile, former high-flying brands Nokia and BlackBerry are banking on nostalgia to grab attention. It all just underscores the fact that although Apple and Samsung dominate the market, consumers still have plenty of alternatives. The trick is to not come across as a bunch of also-rans.

"I don't know that it's necessarily an opportunity for someone else to stand out," said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research. "In fact, it might just make everyone else seem unimportant by comparison."

So why all the effort? Regardless of how brutally competitive it is, the phone remains the remote control for your life. And for many companies, it's the gateway to get you to buy more of their products or services. That's why these companies keep falling over themselves to introduce new phones.

Here's a breakdown of what to expect starting this weekend.

LG's moment?

When LG "unveils" its G6 phone on Sunday, there will be few surprises. A steady stream of leaks, including from CNET, give a good impression of the device: a large display, a narrow frame, a water-resistant body, last-year's Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and a built-in (nonreplaceable) battery.


The LG G5 and its removable and swappable chin broke new ground on modular design, but consumers didn't want anything to do with it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The company's back-to-basics approach is a tacit admission that last year's G5, which went out on a limb with a modular system that allowed you to customize the phone with accessory parts, was a failure.

The G6 could end up as LG's redemption phone and has a high chance of taking the spotlight normally devoted to Samsung. That would be fitting considering LG last year tried to upstage Samsung by holding its press conference a few hours earlier. Samsung ended up blowing away the competition with its Galaxy S7 event, which featured Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a surprise cameo.

Sunday aims to be the busiest day for phone press conferences and LG kicks things off at noon Barcelona time.

"There's plenty of innovation to go around and if the number of expected guests at our event is any indication, we expect to have the biggest event at this MWC," said an LG spokesman.

Nostalgia play

The show will also be notable for the return of two storied names in the mobile world -- Nokia and BlackBerry. And with Samsung out of the way, either could tap into our remembrance of awesome things past to win the show.

BlackBerry is back courtesy of Chinese phone maker TCL, which has licensed the name for new Android phones. It's a big step for TCL, which has tried to make its Alcatel phone line recognizable beyond the budget crowd (it really hasn't), and finally gets a chance to play with a brand that has widespread recognition.

Who cares if that reputation is a bit tarnished after years of market failures, right?

Take a closer look at the BlackBerry DTEK60

See all photos

TCL showed off a prototype version of its phone, codenamed Mercury, at CES in January. We'll get the full details on the product on Saturday.

"It's not about who isn't making announcements at Mobile World Congress this year," said Steve Cistulli, president of TCL's North American business. "It's more important to focus on the highly anticipated device launches that will occur -- like what's to come from BlackBerry Mobile with our 'Mercury' event."

HMD, a startup formed by former Nokia executives, is bringing back the once-undisputed king of the mobile world. The company is expected to unveil three Android-powered Nokia phones, a break from the prior embrace of Symbian and Windows Phone.

Unlike TCL, Nokia looks to be targeting consumers in the mid-to-low-end of the market, so expect affordable prices for these phones. It already unveiled the Nokia 6, which now sells in China, and is expected to round out its family of products with cheaper variants.

Then there are the persistent rumors that it will bring back the classic Nokia 3310 phone, a candy bar phone from Nokia's heyday, when two out of everyone five phones sold in the world came from the Finnish giant.

Of course, given all that smartphones can do, the comparatively dumb Nokia 3310 might best be served as a novelty gift -- or sent straight to an emerging market.

The X factors

Another company to keep an eye on doesn't have much name recognition in the US, but has steadily become a major worldwide player. Huawei has teased the "global unveiling of a new flagship device," at its press conference on Sunday, and chances are it's going to be a successor to its P9 phone, which launched at last year's MWC.

Granted, Huawei isn't a household name in the US like Samsung or even LG, but Huawei banners and billboards are plastered all over MWC's host city, as well as the Fira de Barcelona, the venue hosting the show. If you're attending, there's a good chance you'll be wearing a Huawei-branded lanyard around your neck.

Also in the mix is Lenovo's Motorola unit, which is hosting its press conference just 90 minutes after Huawei's event. The company isn't teasing a flagship phone, which would presumably be the follow-up to its customizable Moto Z. Instead, all indications point to an update to its more affordable G line of phones, which have proved popular in the budget market as well as in South America and Asia.

Then there's Sony. Given its history, the company will likely focus on sharp resolution and camera quality for any new phones it releases. Its press conference kicks off Monday, the official start of the show.

ZTE is also hoping to snag some headlines. The little-known Chinese phone maker specializing in budget handsets is making a push with a supposed "Gigabit Phone," capable of accessing an LTE connection of up to 1 gigabit per second. Now only if there were a ton of carriers out there with that kind of network (hint: there aren't that many).

But it's Mobile World Congress. All's fair when it comes to the war for your attention.

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