Smartphones fight for relevance in an all-mobile world | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 22.02.2016
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Smartphones fight for relevance in an all-mobile world

The Mobile World Congress 2016 has opened its doors. Consumers now have a chance to get a closer look at the best the industry has to offer and to test some of the gadgets. Janelle Dumalaon reports from Barcelona.

This year, the theme is "mobile is everything." If nothing else, that's an accurate estimation of where we are in this particular point of history. We now live in a world that's moving towards pervasive connectivity.

That means the MWC has long ceased to only be about mobile phones, but about wearables, the Internet of Things, achieving break-neck Internet speeds and the creation of whole other worlds via virtual reality (VR).

That also means traditional mobile providers of mobile tech like smartphones are no longer just competing with each other as the game diversifies and unconventional players are added.

At the MWC, smartphone manufacturers have a tradition of launching their newest flagships. And to keep consumers interested, they've hit on an obvious solution. If you can't beat the new players, join them - and stay relevant in the process.

Zuckerberg's social call

Samsung's ahead of the Android pack as it is, but it too has to combat waning excitement at smartphones.

And for the company's launch of its flagship Galaxy S7, and its curved edition, the S7 Edge, it brought in the big guns. Right after audience members had taken off the Samsung VR Gear headsets they used to view a VR demo, none other than Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a surprise appearance.

And virtual reality was what he was there to talk about. Facebook bought virtual reality outfit Oculus two years ago as it was developing Gear VR with Samsung. And he said Facebook and Samsung were set to bond even more tightly over VR.

MWC participants testing VR gear

Those attending the MWC 2016 launching ceremony were keen to try out Samsung's virtual reality gadgets

"VR is the next platform, where anyone can experience and create anything they want," he said.

He added VR was still pretty much used for gaming and entertainment, but that that was "quickly evolving" and that it would change lives and work and communication - and that it would be the most social platform.

"Facebook is investing so much early on in virtual reality," Zuckerberg said. "So we can hope to deliver these types of social experiences."

So many rumors had already circulated around the S7 and S7 Edge - the return of the micro-SD slot, that they're waterproof and have beefed up cameras with the largest apertures a Samsung phone has ever had, even a rumor which turned out to be true that Samsung would toss in a free Gear VR headset for those who pre-order - didn't truly promise to knock the audience's collective socks off: as it turned out, that was Zuckerberg's job.

LG says it has friends, too

LG, unfortunately, did not have the benefit of star power on its side. But what it did have was a head start on the other smartphone makers by being the first to unbox the latest edition of its flagship on the Sunday before the MWC.

The South Korean company launched its new flagship G5 in a lime-colored whirlwind of bombast and techno, centered around the rallying cry of LG'S CEO Juno Cho.

"The age of smartphones isn't over," he said.

There's good reason for him to say that, and it's not just because he's in the business of selling smartphones. As innovations in mobile hardware plateau, LG has been struggling to stand out.

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Virtual reality feeling its way forward

Enter the "friends." That's how LG is calling a whole crop of new devices that can be used with the new G5. Many of them count on the phone's modular design. Accessories can be docked on to the phone by popping the bottom of the handset out and removing the battery, like the audio system designed with Bang & Olufsen called the LG Hi-Fi Plus with B&O Play.

There are others external accessories meant to work with the phone, and LG has its own nod to virtual reality. The LG 360 VR is smaller and lighter than its competitors, because it doesn't need to hold a phone inside of it, unlike Samsung's Gear VR.

But while LG presented accessories to show it was keeping up with established industry movements like VR, it also had some quirkier offerings. Take the LG rolling bot. That's exactly what it sounds like. It's a ball that can roll around to monitor your home, can be controlled remotely, and can connect to wifi and play with your pets.

One could argue about the true usefulness of such an attachment, but that would be missing the point. The Mobile World Congress is all about ideas. By the time it wraps up Thursday, rolling bots and drone controllers (yes, LG had these too) may have become part of the vernacular. As already pointed out, mobile is everything. And that could also mean there's room for anything. The world's smartphone makers have recognized this.

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