What we’ve learned from MWC this year


Attendees inspect an Ascend G620 LTE smartphone at the Huawei Technologies Co. pavilion on day three of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014. (Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg)

Smartphone makers are taking down their booths and leaving Barcelona, as this year’s Mobile World Congress, a major trade show for smartphone makers, fades into the history books. They leave behind an even clearer picture of where the smartphone industry’s focus is headed. This year, that appears to be more or less away from the United States.

Since International CES in January, we’ve been building a steady picture of what the gadget landscape is going to look like in 2014. At MWC, two of those storylines continued: the proliferation of big-screened phone-tablet hybrids and increased focus the mid- and low-range market. Both of those trends take more direct aim at overseas markets than they do at the U.S., which is pretty flooded with smartphones.

The share of the limelight that mid- and low-tier phones got at this year’s MWC, solidifies the fact that the market for premium smartphones just isn’t what it used to be. Across the globe, the biggest prospects for growth are among smartphone users who tend to be more price-conscious — first-time owners and those who happy with not having a top-of-the-line phone. Nokia and LG both announced big mid- and low-range products, and, of course, China-based firms that have focused heavily on this market such as Huawei and ZTE also had plenty to offer.

And there are phablets, which were everywhere at this year’s conference, from Huawei’s 7-inch MediaPad to HTC’s 5.5-inch Desire 816.

For most American customers, the continued introduction of big, big phones — generally phones with screens that measure at least 5.3 inches — may seem a bit bewildering. In countries where smartphone adoption is happening at the same time as tablet adoption, it makes more sense to have one mobile device than two. It’s also appealing in places where a big screen and stylus come in handy for writing languages with non-Roman characters such as East Asia and the Middle East.

Analysts have predicted that phablets are going to eat into global tablet sales numbers. But in the U.S., they’re still a niche product. The NPD Group recently reported that phablets accounted for just 3.3 million of the 121 million mobile phones sold in the U.S. in 2013.

That’s not to say that the U.S. will be abandoned by gadget makers. They’ll just be shifting their focus to a different product category for early adopters to love: wearables.

Samsung grabbed most of the headlines on the wearable front by unveiling three new gadgets: the Gear 2 smartwatch, the Gear Neo and a fitness tracker called the Gear Fit. All the devices can do things such as track your heart rate, count your steps and show you notifications from your phone — without having to pull the actual phone out of your pocket or bag.

But plenty of other companies showed off their own versions of what wearables will look like. Sony’s SmartBand hooks into your social media activities and location information to log your entire day, including your social activities.

If you like the idea but find wearables aren’t your thing, don’t despair. As different companies achieve a sort of parity on the more technical specs of their phones such as speed and screen quality — the race that defined the last generation of the smartphone market — they’ll likely distinguish themselves with novel sensors pulled from the wearable market that provide even more value for their customers.

Samsung, for example, already has a heart monitor on its newest phone, the Galaxy S5, and it’s likely we’ll see more tech from the wearable world leak back over to smartphones.

Related stories:

Samsung, Nokia, Sony and others make big announcements at Mobile World Congress

Samsung touts Galaxy S5, new wearables

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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