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Smartphones to find their voice again at MWC in Barcelona

The Financial Times logo The Financial Times 23-02-2017 Nic Fildes, Telecoms Correspondent

The mobile industry may have almost lost its voice in recent years, in the age of the data-focused smartphone, but next week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona could mark a comeback for talking into your telephone.

The rise of artificial intelligence, voice recognition and the “personal digital assistant” are expected to dominate the presentations and booths at the world’s largest mobile phone trade show. More than 100,000 people are expected to attend.

Future 5G networks, virtual reality and the latest attempts to sell wearable technology as a mainstream product will also be themes.

Apple does not present at the show and in the absence of Samsung, which has opted to delay the launch of its Galaxy S8 smartphone after its product safety issues last year, the rest of the industry has a rare opportunity to stand out.

The inclusion of voice-activated functions built around Amazon’s Alexa, adopted by Huawei, and Google Assistant, which to date has only appeared in the company’s own Pixel phone, will be highlighted. Sony, which has its own Ear assistant, is also expected to make some noise.

Ben Wood, analyst at CCS Insight, said: “Voice, for years, has been deeply unfashionable, but with a number of devices launching at MWC, it will be fashionable again.”

In focus in Barcelona: Google's Pixel phone features its new Assistant voice technology, which is expected to be a key theme at the upcoming MWC© Provided by Financial Times In focus in Barcelona: Google's Pixel phone features its new Assistant voice technology, which is expected to be a key theme at the upcoming MWC

Voice activation is not a new innovation, with Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana already vying for attention, and Samsung responding with the acquisition of Viv last year.

With the advance of voice, smartphone design that was becoming formulaic can be rethought, say analysts.

Mr Wood describes a “sea of smartphone sameness” in the sector, where Android-powered handsets have captured virtually all the non-iPhone share. Their uniformity shows a lack of new ideas, beyond increasing the screen size, speeding up the processors and improving the pixel count of the camera lens.

Roberta Cozza, from the Gartner research firm, says that digital assistants will mean selling an experience with the device, rather than emphasising the features of the handset. This is more important with the wearable technology boom running out of steam.

“Users are getting bored with all this useless data,” she says. “The voice recognition platforms will reduce dependence on the touchscreen and let users get the information they want without taking the phone out of their pocket.”

This could pave the way for the abolition of buttons on smartphones in the future, according to Mr Wood, who has predicted that “all-screen” phones will start to gain traction given many consumers predominantly use smartphone and tablets to consume video.

“Voice becomes the knobs and buttons of the next generation of devices,” he says.

MWC will also see the introduction of ‘gigabit phones’ that can support more virtual reality content and 4K ultra high definition screen resolution. CCS Insight also predicts the rise of 360 degree cameras that can take “surroundees”.

One incremental change could be the thinning of the bezel — the border around the smartphone screen — with Xiaomi’s Mi Mix handset perhaps a sign of things to come, in pushing the screen to the very edge of the phone.

Network vendors at MWC will see it as an important opportunity to set out their stall for a 5G future.

Ericsson has gone all in on proving its 5G credentials with live demonstrations of hyper-fast data speeds set to take place.

Huawei, the Chinese vendor, has been more circumspect and has instead pushed its cloud networking platforms.

Rethink Wireless, the research firm, said that approach anchors 5G in the current requirements of operators “not just the 2020 dreams of a few”.

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