Smartphone makers searched for a way forward at MWC 2023

The slowdown was inevitable, of course. Nothing stays hot forever — especially in this industry. By tech standards, smartphones have had a good run, but the last few years have seen device makers searching for the magic bullet to help the sales slide reverse course. The arrival of 5G was a nice reprieve, but next-generation telecom standards don’t arrive every year.

It’s too early to say with certainly whether the move toward device repairability in the midst of new and proposed legislation will have a meaningful impact, but it was a highlight at this year’s show, which HMD turned into a central thesis. Regardless of how many people take advantage of the ability to repair their devices at home (or have a third party repair them), it’s another potential pain point for industry growth.

Nokia booth at MWC 2023. Image Credits: Brian Heater

Foldables have seemingly performed many expectations (specifically for Samsung), but not nearly enough to really move the needle. Phone makers have a refresh problem. For a long time, phone purchases were inexorably tied to carrier plans, putting the devices on a two- or three-year cycle. Of course, the kinds of financing deals that let you spend less up front have a way of making you pay in the end.

There does seem to be a looming sense of carriers and manufacturers attempting to return to something similar with a new name.

“I think there’s going to be more of a movement toward models where devices themselves are sold more as a service,” Google’s Sameer Samat told me this week. “I think there’s a lot of innovative work going on in the carrier side to figure out how you buy a device for less up front, you use it and return it after a period of time and you get another device as part of your overall subscription.”


Image Credits: Brian Heater

In a world where we don’t own our movies, music or software, the concept of “hardware as a service” is rapidly emerging as its own path forward. Like the move from physical albums to Spotify, it has trade-offs.

Some consumers will no doubt jump at the opportunity to upgrade hardware without a thought, but is not owning your phone the same as not owning a CD or record? Will these ultimately end up costing us a lot more in the end? And in a time when most manufacturers are touting percentages of recycled materials, how much more waste will this model create?

There’s also a sense phone makers effectively painted themselves into a corner. The yearly one-upmanship ultimately benefited consumers with much better devices. I’ve said this a bunch, but these days it’s hard to find a bad phone for more than $500 — there are also an increasing number of good ones for less than that. These days, a “budget” device often involves settling for last year’s best chipset.

Better phones last longer, both in terms of durability and futureproofing feature set. Having a three- or four-year-old phone these days doesn’t mean the same thing it meant three or four years ago. That’s also due, in part, to the fact that innovation has slowed. It’s become a battle for inches. When was the last time you saw a truly revolutionary upgrade from last year’s model? Do moderately better screens, cameras or even batteries compel that many people toward impulse purchases?

“The smartphone market grew initially because there was a really innovative product that was useful to customers,” Nothing’s Carl Pei told me in an interview this week. “Now it’s starting to shrink, because my phone is good enough. Why should I upgrade?”

A colorful 'Metaverse' logo is shown atop a booth at the MWC 2023 trade show in Barcelona

Image Credits: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch

Taking the broader view, none of this is bad, per se. It means better products for consumers, as well as a slowing of the massive waste generated by millions of people buying a new device every other year. We all tacitly understand why corporations and shareholders hope such cycles will sustain forever, but many of us are glad they don’t. Companies need one of two things to happen: either reversing the slide or shifting focus to other revenue streams.

“There will always be sales of new phones,” says Samat. “But I think you’re now reaching the point where this is, for many people, it is their primary computing device. So, there are different and more interesting ways of looking at the market. I think in terms of what are you able to do with these devices? What does engagement look like? What are the services that you’re utilizing? And how is it integrated with other parts of your life?”

The writing has been on the wall for a while. The slowdown pre-dates the pandemic by some time, but the last three years have certainly accelerated the trend. Shutdowns, unemployment, inflation, supply chain constraints — you know the deal. Forward thinking companies invested heavily in content plays. That’s certainly paid off for Apple and some of the competition, as well. There were moments where wearables and smart home devices seemed like they might help stem the bleeding, but while both have done well for manufacturers, there isn’t the same sense of ubiquity.

6G isn’t anything beyond a number of different companies vying for adoption of their specific solution, so we’re looking at years before the first devices start arriving. At a conference that loves nothing more than hyping a new technology, 5G’s potential replacement only warranted a single panel.

Mike, who sat in on the panel, notes:

The first thing to note is that it’s not arriving anytime soon. The projections are that the likes of you and I will only get 6G into our hot little hands from around 2030 onwards, so it would be best to quell your ire for now.

Anyone else feel like it’s 50/50 between 6G and Mad Max scenario for 2030? Okay, maybe it’s just me. Even so, that feels impossibly far away and doesn’t do much for any of these companies in the near term.

Oppo’s Find N2 Flip at MWC 2023. Image Credits: Brian Heater

Maybe foldables have a lot more juice left in them? If MWC was any indication, manufacturers certainly believe so. It seemed like every company had one this year. Well, everyone except Nothing.

“I personally think foldables are supply chain-driven innovation and not consumer insights,” Pei said. “Somebody invents OLED, and they can make a lot of money, because it’s a great technology. Then after a few years, a lot more companies make that, so they need to lower their prices. So they need to figure out what else they can sell at a higher margin. They develop flexible OLEDs, which they can sell at a higher price.”

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It’s hard not to be cynical about this stuff sometimes. Ditto for concept devices, though as I noted in my “ode to weird tech” post, as someone who follows this stuff for a living, I’m a fan of weirdness for weirdness sake, be it the rollable Motorola Rizr screen or the OnePlus glowing cooling fluid. Certainly following the automotive industry’s lead of creating concept devices is a trend that is likely to only become more pervasive.

OnePlus COO Kinder Liu told me this week that gauging consumer interest is one of the “multiple reasons” his company is engaging with the concept. He added, “Also, we want to encourage continuous innovation inside our company.”

Pretty much everyone I engaged with this week echoed the sentiment that smartphones are in a rut. For the first time, however, it’s not a foregone conclusion that there’s a way of getting out.

Read more about MWC 2023 on TechCrunch

Smartphone makers searched for a way forward at MWC 2023 by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

European Union keeps mobile roaming fees at bay for another decade

Five years ago, the European Union passed rules which largely ended mobile roaming fees for citizens traveling with their devices across borders within the bloc. Today lawmakers are reupping the regulation that lets EU citizens “roam like at home” for a full decade, meaning European consumers can keep avoiding most extra fees when travelling within another of the 27 EU Member States (or the EEA) until at least 2032.

The updated regulation also brings some new additions — including a focus on quality of service, with a requirement that consumers have access to the same services abroad in the EU as at home when the same networks and technologies are available on the network in the visited Member State.

This means, for example, that a roaming customer who can use 5G services at home should also have 5G roaming services — where they are available — in the visited Member State.

The quality of service provision does not mean a guarantee of getting the same mobile network speed when roaming, since network speeds can vary, but the Commission says the new rules “aim to ensure that when similar quality or speeds are available in the visited network, the domestic operator should ensure the same quality of the roaming service”.

Operators are also required to inform their customers of the quality of services they can expect while roaming by stating this in the roaming contract and publishing information on their website.

The Commission argues that quality of service will be increasingly important as 5G rollouts expand and mobile network technology continues to evolve (its PR includes the phrase “future 6G” — alongside talk of the EU “investing in developing and using innovative digital solutions”).

“As concerns 5G services, it will become more and more important for consumers travelling abroad to know if they could be affected by limitations in available network quality when using certain applications and services,” it suggests. “The new roaming rules aim to enable innovation and business development, ensuring the widest use of innovative services and minimising the risk that citizens would not be able to use certain applications requiring the latest network technology, such as 5G, when crossing internal EU borders.”

The EU’s executive also frames the updated roaming regulation as a boon to digital innovation by reducing the risk of usage disruption since consumers can continuously use their apps and services as they travel across borders in the EU.

The Commission’s PR makes no mention of contrasting recent developments in the UK — which ceased to be an EU Member on January 31 2020, following the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum vote to leave the bloc — and where, since the EU roaming regulation ceased to apply, most of the big carriers have quietly announced they will be reintroducing roaming charges for their UK subscribers travelling in the EU.

But UK mobile users are unlikely to have missed the fact that Brexit has meant a return of roaming fees when they want to travel in Europe.

Some Brits may therefore detect a faint trace of trolling in this statement from Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, commenting on the extension of fee-free roaming inside the EU, who said: “Remember when we had to switch off mobile data when travelling in Europe — to avoid ending up with a massive roaming bill? Well this is history. And we intend to keep it this way for at least the next 10 years. Better speed, more transparency: We keep improving EU citizens’ lives.”


Another focus for the EU’s updated regulation is around increasing transparency about the types of services that can still bring additional costs when roaming, such as calling customer service numbers, helpdesks or insurance companies — to help travellers in the bloc avoid related ‘bill shocks’.

The Commission says consumers who are roaming should receive an SMS about “potential increased charges” from using such services.

“The SMS should include a link to a dedicated webpage providing additional information on the types of services and, if available, about the relevant phone numbering ranges,” it notes, suggesting operators may also include information about the types of services that may be subject to higher charges in roaming in their contracts with the consumers.

The updated rules are also intended to improve information provision about and access to emergency communications across the EU — such as via the single European emergency number, 112.

“Dialing the emergency numbers and transmitting information on the location of the caller while roaming should be seamless and for free. Likewise, citizens who cannot place a call to 112 should be able to access emergency services free of charge through alternative means when roaming, for example through real time text or a smartphone application,” says the Commission.

“The new roaming rules also reinforce access to emergency services, through calls and alternative means of communications in case of cross border use. It will also ensure that the transmission of caller location will be seamless and free of charge while using roaming services.”

The EU is continuing to regulate wholesale caps — controlling the maximum prices a visited operator may charge for the use of its network by another operator in order to provide roaming services — with the Commission describing this as “an essential element for the sustainability of ‘roam like at home’ for operators”. Its review of the roaming market concluded that wholesale caps should be further reduced.

“The co-legislators agreed on a gradual reduction of the wholesale caps from 2022 onwards,” it notes. “These caps reflect decreasing operators’ wholesale costs of providing roaming services, provide sufficient investment incentives and maximise sustainability for EU operators.”

The Commission expects these wholesale cost reductions to lead to benefits for consumers — such as more generous data allowances while roaming and less likelihood of consumers having to pay surcharges for data usage that exceeds contract allowances.

Operators will still be able to apply a ‘fair use’ policy — meaning that if a person moves to live in another EU country it will be better for them to move to a local contract, as permanent roaming is no longer considered ‘fair use’.