Rude VC: Europe still has a winner in MWC

Mar 6, 2012
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Last week Europe hosted the Mobile World Congress, an annual ritual in which over 60,000 people in dark gray and black suits invade Barcelona in an event originally organized by the consortium of mobile network operators. The event used to be called 3GSM, named after the nearly ubiquitous technology standard for mobile communication. The GSMA subsequently upgraded the title of the show to the Mobile World Congress to decouple its name from the increasingly obsolete technology standard.

In an article on this very subject, TechCrunch questioned whether the MWC will continue to remain to relevant. They observed how the center of gravity in mobile is shifting away from the network operators and towards handset platforms and software. The show is less about Vodafone and more about Android and Angry Birds. In the past, the stars of the show were gladiator CEOs like Sir Christopher Gent. Now, the celebrities are people like Denis Crowley of Foursquare.

TechCrunch argues that the new product announcements or business partnerships in this new paradigm happen on a regular basis, that it no longer takes a yearly carrier-sponsored trade show to handshake on an agreement in a convention center hospitality suite.

While I agree that the trend toward software and content is indisputable, as a VC I enjoy attending the MWC each year, and I submit that the conference has far from outlived its utility. The MWC is the sole conference that I consistently reserve on my calendar. I look forward to it annually for a few primary reasons.

How do I say “You’re beautiful” in Catalan ?

First, it’s a chance to escape Paris and experience gorgeous Barcelona weather in February. More importantly, this is the only conference in the world that assembles all the people in the mobile ecosystem in one place: the mobile operators, the operator vendors, the content players, startups, investors, and investment bankers. Only at an event as wide and as comprehensive as this can I glean a sense of where the next innovations may bud, simply by walking the floor.

This year I overcharged my agenda, regretfully not leaving a ton of spare time to wander and soak in the vibe. Still, some trends were unmistakable.

Takeaways from this year’s conference

HTML5, for example, is the current technology buzzword. We’ll see how sustainable this fascination is, though with Facebook’s initiative in partnership with 9 global carrier groups to upgrade mobile phone browsers in order to enrich the technology’s capabilities, I would be bullish on HTML5. While apps are here to stay, I more broadly believe the mobile browser ecosystem is giving rise to a number of cool activities ripe for VC funding.

Another shift apparent at the conference was the mobile operators’ burgeoning interest in using the mobile device to enhance customer engagement and customer retention. Operator vendors, at least those who aren’t still restructuring, seem to be responding.

Perhaps the most audacious statement came from Nokia. Last year their platform may have been burning, but this year their stand was on fire! Between the stand that represented an amusement park, the free ice cream, and the aesthetically dynamite lineup of new smartphones, Nokia made it resoundingly clear that they’re not going down without a fight.

It’s all about human contact

Another principal reason that I love the MWC is that it represents one of the rare opportunities to catch up in person with a geographically disparate group of people, for example with my VC counterparts in Silicon Valley, or with potential partners for my portfolio companies from east Asia, the only time of year when several of them congregate in Europe. In this world of always-on, social media enabled connectivity, I submit that the physical encounter is still indispensable. No matter what industry we’re in, we’re all in the people business. The physical crossing-of-paths facilitated by MWC allows us to build relationships, speak off the record, exchange body language, and fundamentally interact as human beings.

TechCrunch points out that the most interesting activities occur not in the central Mobile Congress, but at the fringe events, such as at elaborate parties in hotels, yachts, football stadiums, or historic Gaudi-architectured dwellings throughout the city. This is true. But you cannot have these fun sideshows without the main event.