We’re living in a funny sort of ultra-connected time where no consumer tech company can keep its secrets secret. So when I gaze out toward the approaching Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I can already tell you that it will bring perhaps the most diverse selection of smartphone forms, sizes, designs, and specifications we’ve yet seen. MWC 2019 will be defined by this diversity, with companies straining at the edges of conventional design to try and come up with an original idea, an attention-grabbing concept, or just a good old gimmick that will differentiate their product from all the rest. In simple terms, things are going to get weird.
Over the many years that I’ve been attending MWC, I’ve also noticed two primary routes of advancement for the majority of phone manufacturers.
Path A is to copy Apple. Let’s just be upfront about it. Copying the iPhone is how Samsung, Xiaomi, and Huawei — the three others in the top four global smartphone manufacturers, beside Apple — got their start, and it’s served many other companies well. This method involves taking your existing flagship device, comparing it to the current iPhone plus rumors about the next iPhone, and then bringing your design closer to that ideal. Examples? You couldn’t walk 10 steps at MWC last year without seeing notched iPhone X copycats, and Asus’ was one of the most egregious, if only because of the company’s size and stature as a PC component maker.
Path B is to pursue being first without regard for much else. This approach assumes that the consumer is fickle, easily distractible, and unsatisfied with merely incremental improvements. The more dramatic the novelty and the more visually appealing and recognizably different it is, the better. No one is immune to this line of thinking, and its basic premise is correct: when Samsung tried to reissue the Galaxy S8 as a more refined but not-really-different S9, the market responded by slashing its sales. Hence the introduction of the Galaxy Fold headline-grabber of this week.
2019 is a path B kind of year.
After the major redesign of the iPhone with the iPhone X, Apple didn’t really do much of an overhaul of its smartphone in the fall of 2018. So anyone still trying to ape the iPhone this year is basically going to be late to the party. That’s already been done. Over the course of 2018, though, display technologies moved forward, new mechanical designs such as the periscope pop-up cameras emerged, and even sliders made a comeback.
Every company attending MWC wants to maximize its exposure (with the possible exception of ZTE, which seems to be keeping a low profile due to its uncertain future), and in order to do that, almost every company is going a little wild with its design. Let’s review some of the standout examples that leaks and pre-event reports suggest we will see over the course of the next week.
- Sony will be using a cinematic 21:9 screen on the next Xperia flagship phone. This is going to make a very tall — or wide, when held sideways — phone, and it’s sure to stir conversation. It brings to mind the charmingly quirky LG BL40, a 2009 handset that had a striking look and was made out of lovely materials, but it offered lackluster ergonomics and performance.
- Nokia will be putting five cameras on the back of its new flagship. Granted, Samsung and LG have made the idea of five and six cameras on smartphones feel almost normal, but having a full array of five on just one surface is still quite the feat from Nokia. The Nokia 9 PureView has been the subject of leaks for many months, and the particular arrangement of the five lenses on its back is going to be a memorable design for a while to come.
- Oppo is building a phone with an optical 10x zoom. Using a clever system of mirrors and lenses arrange laterally inside the phone, Oppo has already demonstrated the ability to deliver 5x zoom via optical rather than digital means. Going to 10x is even more impressive, and the expectation for MWC is that the tech will make it into an actual retail device.
- Huawei will respond to Samsung’s Galaxy Fold with its own 5G foldable phone-tablet hybrid. That device, as yet unnamed and still mostly mysterious, will likely be the poster child for MWC 2019. It will combine the two big hype trends of 5G and foldables, though exactly how much of it we’ll get to see or touch is up for debate.
- Nubia will be bringing its Alpha wearable smartphone to MWC, and we may be justified in anticipating the company will put a price and release date on the device for markets outside its native China. I saw the Alpha back in September at IFA, when it was in a decidedly unfinished state, so MWC may be counted as the wrist-worn phone’s more proper debut.
- TCL, the big-time TV maker that also happens to sell phones under the Alcatel, BlackBerry, and Palm brands, looks set to debut a flexible display device of its own. In fact, a report suggests there are as many as five foldables in TCL’s portfolio, with one of them being a phone that people will be able to wrap around their wrist. There’s a good chance that MWC will see at least part of this portfolio.
Beyond those particular brands and devices, we’ll definitely see more foldables, and there’s even been a rumor that LG will do a second screen as an accessory for its upcoming G8 ThinQ flagship. With multiple companies already building phones with displays on the front and the back, and with the trend of sliders and pop-up selfie cameras only growing, MWC 2019 is shaping up to be an absolute cornucopia of divergent design. I can’t wait.