MWC, Monday 25 February 2019

Our pick of the day’s news

Sony Bets on New Xperia 1 Flagship Smartphone to Regain Footing

In an effort to get its smartphone business back on track, Sony announced four new smartphones: the Xperia 1, Xperia 10 and 10 Plus, and the lower-end Xperia L3.

The Xperia 1 is Sony’s latest flagship device. Like several other handsets announced at MWC, it features a triple array of 12-megapixel cameras including wide-angle, telephoto and super-wide lenses. The phone also boasts a 4K HDR 6.5-inch OLED screen with a 21:9 aspect ratio optimized for video content from providers such as Sony Pictures, Netflix and Amazon Prime. Sony claims that about 70% of movies are shot in 21:9 format. The wide display, a feature that the phone shares with the six-inch mid-range Xperia 10 and 6.5-inch Xperia 10 Plus, makes the phone look long and thin compared with rival devices. The Xperia L3 offers a smaller 5.7-inch screen and dual-camera set-up.

The Xperia 10 and 10 Plus are priced at £299 and £349 respectively, and the Xperia L3 costs £169. Sony has not revealed the price of the Xperia 1.

As usual, Sony’s smartphones are nicely designed with a quality feel, but it’s hard to see how they will help the company stand out from the crowd of similar-looking rival devices. We are unconvinced that the 21:9 screen ratio achieves enough differentiation, despite Sony’s strong credentials in content. We have little doubt that the triple camera will perform extremely well, given Sony’s leadership position in images sensors. However, the use of three cameras has become “the new normal” on rival Android smartphones from Samsung and others.

In the race to deliver a 5G smartphone, Sony also seems to be lagging. Although it has a long-established partnership with Qualcomm, it’s only showing a prototype 5G smartphone on its stand. Other phone-makers such as LG, Samsung and Xiaomi have already unveiled commercial products, albeit with no firm shipping dates. As a large consumer electronics company, it’s easy to understand why Sony wants to persist with its smartphone arm, but it will need to find a way to draw consumers to its products if it is to remain a viable business unit.

Oppo Reveals a 5G Phone and Lossless Zoom Technology

Oppo, like other smartphone makers, announced a 5G smartphone using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 and X50 processors. In common with several Chinese players, Oppo is looking to international expansion as its home market becomes increasingly saturated, and it’s banking on 5G as a vehicle for growth. This builds on a number of innovative products it launched during 2018 including the Oppo Find X, which is equipped with an integrated pop-up camera mechanism.

Beyond its 5G phone, Oppo’s big announcement at MWC was its 10x lossless zoom technology. Oppo has previously shown a 5x lossless zoom concept at the 2017 event, but it’s now bringing out a commercial 10x variant, which also uses stacked lenses to deliver exceptional optical zoom performance. This is definitely a technology that rival smartphone makers will be examining closely.

Keynotes Tackle Old and New Themes at MWC

A group of network operator CEOs opened the MWC keynote programme in Barcelona. First on stage was Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete, head of Telefonica. He struck a number of familiar themes while outlining his company’s strategy. He highlighted how the perceived value of mobile services was out of step with their cost and quality, suggesting that mobile service now costs less than the price of two cups of coffee per day. He went on to say that the opportunities offered by 5G would make mobile services even richer.

Hitting more familiar ground, Mr Alvarez-Pallete claimed that belligerent regulation and onerous spectrum auctions had combined to slow progress in Europe behind that in the US and Asian markets. Yet he remained optimistic about what Telefonica and other operators would have to offer as 5G emerged in many markets in 2019.

Mr Alvarez-Pallete is always worth listening to; in our view, he strikes a balance between urging governments to take a more holistic view and explaining the role that operators have to play. His transformation of the Telefonica group has been particularly impressive, given the challenges he inherited when he was appointed in 2016. He has stewarded a transformation that has embraced artificial intelligence, 5G and a vision of Telefonica as a digital champion.

Telefonica and other operators are seeking to reorganize their business models as we enter the 5G era. Creating new and different partnerships will be crucial to their aspirations, as noted below.

Intel Outlines “End-to-End” 5G Strategy

Intel’s announcements at MWC underline the very different approach the silicon giant is taking to 5G. Although it is competing with Qualcomm and others to provide 5G modem silicon, this is one part of a broader strategy and capability that spans from the cloud through the core network to the network edge and connected devices. Its announcements in Barcelona reflected this breadth. Following the announcement of its Snow Ridge 10 nm system-on-chip for base stations at CES, Intel confirmed a partnership with Ericsson to deliver radio access network computing chips. Similarly, it reiterated the role of Cascade Lake (part of the Xeon Scalable family) in enabling operators to deliver more cloud-like capability in data centre, core and network edge environments.

Intel’s new FPGA Acceleration Card N3000 is designed to speed up virtualized network functions as networks become defined in software and virtualized to enable maximum scalability and flexibility. Rakuten and Affirmed Networks are testing samples before commercial availability in the third quarter of 2019. Intel also announced the Open Network Edge Services Software toolkit, which is designed to foster open collaboration and application innovation at the network and enterprise edge. It is one of several initiatives that seek to introduce some consistency for developers of edge-based applications. It could be viewed as yet another source of more complexity, but Intel’s position in cloud, network and edge silicon and its broad range of partnerships mean it holds an important role in the drive toward much-needed standardization.

Qualcomm Announces System-on-Chip with Integrated 5G

Qualcomm’s announcement is a natural step that follows the development path seen previously with 4G. This should have significant benefits in cost, power and performance, as well as allowing manufacturers to bring products to market quicker, and widen 5G’s availability to more price tiers. It follows the company’s earlier announcement of its Snapdragon X55 multimode modem (see MWC, Sunday 24 February 2019).

Qualcomm will not be alone in launching a fully integrated 5G system-on-chip in 2020 — MediaTek, Huawei’s HiSilicon and Samsung are all contenders. Indeed, MediaTek has already stated that it will launch a product in early 2020. However, there is likely to be a significant disparity in performance and support for various frequency bands; MediaTek’s chip will largely focus on the Chinese market and not include support for millimetre wavebands. Qualcomm’s growing portfolio of RF front-end silicon is also an important enabler that manages the added complexity of 5G. Although Samsung is a significant competitor to Qualcomm, it is also a leading customer and has stated that it will be the first to work with Qualcomm on the platform. Qualcomm’s progress builds on its design wins in the Galaxy S10 5G, LG V50 ThinQ and Xiaomi Mi Mix 3. Huawei’s Mate X and 5G variant of the Mate 20 X are so far the only 5G products announced that don’t use Qualcomm’s chips.

Vodafone Early to Tout 5G Efforts

On the eve of MWC, Vodafone claimed the world’s first connection of 5G smartphones to a live network, in Spain. The announcement came after four weeks of testing using three different 5G devices and included a video call in 4K. During the event, a car will drive around the centre of Barcelona to measure and report 5G speeds reaching 1.5 Gbps. The news is one of many about 5G at the show, as operators and manufacturers jostle to position themselves at the forefront of the technology. Cutting through the hype will again be a challenge, but we’re optimistic that this year’s conversations will be more realistic and pragmatic as commercial reality finally draws near. Vodafone itself has confirmed plans to launch 5G in a number of European cities in the second half of 2019.

Telefonica Puts the IoT Spotlight on Consumers

At a briefing for analysts, the Spanish operator pledged to put greater emphasis on solutions such as pet and bag trackers and connected-car services. The move aims to build on the already strong position of its Kite platform for the Internet of things (IoT) and momentum in enterprise markets. The operator said it has already connected 25 million objects in markets in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

Deutsche Telekom Flashes 5G Credentials

Deutsche Telekom declared that “5G is getting real” during its traditional Monday afternoon press conference at MWC. It stated that it is deploying 150 5G antennas in six European markets in the first three months of 2019. The operator trumpeted the benefits of low latency and high data throughput to enable the “world’s first edge-enhanced mixed reality multiplayer experience” at its stand on the exhibition floor. It also switched on its first campus network, at a plant belonging to lighting company Osram in southern Germany. Initially based on LTE and combining public and private networks, the new network will provide dedicated communications for specific applications.

Telefonica and Microsoft Form Strategic Partnership

The agreement seeks to combine Telefonica’s strengths in networks and customer relationships with the Microsoft Azure artificial intelligence platform to create a model for the telecom operator of the future. It builds on existing work between the two companies, mostly notably the Telefonica’s digital assistant Aura, powered by artificial intelligence. At a press conference featuring the CEOs of both companies, the operator outlined how partnerships with third parties including Air Europa, El Corte Ingles and Atletico Madrid football club can create new in-home experiences for its subscribers on a range of devices.