But this year it does look like a deep and significant change is now underway. For a start, one of the main themes of the event is that 5G has arrived and its infrastructure is starting to be rolled out by service providers. That infrastructure has hardly anything to do with mobile phones. Yes, they and related hot tools such as VR headsets, will get the mainstream media attention, but the real impact will be felt right across business.
There are some fundamental changes coming down the roadmap at all businesses. They will affect - at least indirectly - every business, even those that are convinced that digital transformation plays no part in their future. And regardless of what President Trump may like to see happen, it is China that is now starting to lead the way not only in the development of the core 5G technologies and kit, but also in exploitation in business systems.
It has been quite difficult to miss the Trump/Huawei/rest of the world spat, and it has to be acknowledged that it has an importance to every business which many of them may not have latched onto. Put simply, 5G technology is going to be the means of all business communication in the future. It is now no longer a question of if, but when last mile cables (copper or fiber) sunk in the road will be left to rot, and wireless communications capable of delivering up to 1G/bit/sec data will be the order of the day.
Where the Trump/Huawei spat may end up
The issue of the moment, of course, is President Trump’s accusation that Huawei (both Chinese and a leading vendor, globally, in internet infrastructure) is using its internet routers, switches and infrastructure systems to spy on communications for the Chinese Government. There are some points to be made here. For example, it is certainly possible that Huawei could engineer the necessary technology to spy on customers' data traffic. That being said, the same applies to essentially every other manufacturer of similar kit.
We should also not forget that the USA has its own track record in such activities, including SIGAD US-984XN, better known as PRISM, which was an intelligence programme started by the US National Security Agency (NSA) in 2007. Here, the NSA could access user internet data that matched court-approved search terms. Its existence was famously leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013.
Australia, New Zealand and others have joined the USA in banning Huawei kit from being used in their internet services. And, of course, there are plenty of US manufacturers that US stock analysts are now tipping as growth prospects as a result. Will these make America (and in particular the future development of its industry and business practices, performance and capabilities) great again? There has to be some real doubt about that.
While there are several major players providing core 5G backbone services, the consensus of opinion suggests that it is Huawei which is leading the field in all those technologies that integrate end users (in the widest possible interpretation of those words) with the core network. The suggestions are that the absence of Huawei will set 5G take back several years for those that choose not to use the kit. Fine - that certainly plays into the hands of Cisco, Juniper and many others that may benefit, certainly from short-term stock price inflation. But it also hands significant advantages to those countries that continue to use Huawei.
This could easily include most of both the Asian and African continents, areas where the Chinese have built strong footholds and where the market potential is huge. This latter point also means that, with generally very poor – sometimes non-existent – communications infrastructure across both of those regions, 5G could provide the lever that uncorks the economic genies of both of these vast potential markets.
It could also mean that it will be only those western First World countries that are up to speed on 5G exploitation that can stand a chance of competing as the epicentre of economic activity spirals southwards and eastwards.
The UK’s arbiter Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has announced that, so far as it is concerned, Huawei’s kit has as clean a bill of health as any other vendor and is not concerned about its use in upcoming 5G infrastructures. Huawei’s Own Cyber Security and Evaluation Centre has evolved a new model and source code level certification to satisfy GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre.
It is believed to be the only vendor being asked to meet what is said to be the toughest security regime in the world that has to meet three pre-conditions: the highest standard of cyber security in the entire telecoms sector, the most resilient networks, and sustainable diversity in the supplier marketplace.
5G really means the business of doing business
Huawei is pitching a strong enterprise-oriented face when it comes to 5G, using MWC to push several new developments in that area, with its new Digital Platform being something of a lynchpin system.
This is pitched at giving organisations some business synergy and agility through the integration and optimisation of ICT systems and converged data. The goal is to allow them to horizontally integrate cloud, AI, IoT, Big Data, converged communication, video and GIS, as well connect devices out to the network edge. It will also absorb many of the 4G services already available.
The company claims to have already shipped over 40,000 5G base stations worldwide, and has more than 30 major commercial contracts in place. It also expects to see 500 million 5G users, globally, within three years.
Another big Chinese vendor with significant amounts of skin in the 5G/enterprise game is Alibaba, which is launching a Real Time Compute environment aimed a helping customers in the fields such as internet businesses, ride sharing and finance make informed business decisions based on the real-time streaming information.
At the component end of thing, edge-related functionality is becoming a target. Intel, for example, is introducing its PAC N3000 Field Programmable Gate Array processor, which is designed to accelerate network traffic for up to 100 Gbps. Being field-programmable, it allows systems builders to create tailored solutions by utilising reference IPs for networking function acceleration workloads.
And as a measure of just what is possible in the world of chips these days, Micron Technology is launching what it claims is the world's highest-capacity microSD card, delivering one Terabyte of removable storage. When one considers the microSD size and format, that does seem a tad startling, but it really does up the ante on businesses using smartphones as the primary business tool for busy execs.
Ericsson, as might be expected, has several additions to its core infrastructure offerings targeting 5G, and in particular the reality that is the mixed 4G/5G world that most user businesses are going to inhabit. With this in mind it is also targeting network orchestration needs, with a Dynamic Orchestration solution for network slicing automation.
The company has also formed a multi-year collaboration with Intel aimed at ongoing developments in software-defined infrastructure (SDI) and Intel’s Rack Scale Design. The result is expected to be an infrastructure management platform that can deliver the cloudlike agility, transparency and efficiency needed for Network Functions Virtualization, distributed cloud, and 5G.
5G and the millennials - they’re coming to get you
No event like MWC would be complete, of course, without its associated collection of surveys, with two catching the eye. Accenture has one with the expected range of stats showing the users’ expected benefits, but they also then highlight the level of confusion amongst customers that currently exists about 5G.
For example, 70% of respondents believe 5G will give them a competitive edge with customers, yet 72% said they need help imagining the future possibilities and use cases. Then 53% believe there are very few things that 5G will enable them to do that they cannot already do with 4G networks. Strong signs of confusion and spinning tops to be had there, one feels.
Another survey, from content solutions provider ABBYY, does identify one important factor – the significant differences in attitude to future technologies between current management people and the next cohort of millennials coming through, just as 5G systems and services start to appear on the market.
For example, this survey shows that, while only 35% of businesses use mobiles for admin, and 28% of UK workers still use pen and paper, 55% of millennials want to use mobile devices for admin, with 51% believing they are faster. One suggestion being made here is that this demonstrates serious issues with the usability of mobile devices.
There may be some truth to that line of thought but given the speed and flexibility of operations demonstrated by most millennials with a mobile in their hand, this may be more case of the 'old-dog/new tricks' problem when it comes to the current crop of well-seasoned senior business executives.
But it does mark a potentially interesting point of congruence. At a recent briefing, one Huawei exec remarked that, with 5G technology, this is the first time that mobile devices and mobile infrastructure are maturing at the same time. Now add a third important factor: it is also a time when the first batch of mobile-fluent users are maturing and starting to flower as business execs.
This is a coming together that could produce much more disruption, innovation and development than any new technology has wrought alone.
The arrival of 5G may yet prove to be something of a damp squib, especially in first world markets where the pace of change may far out-accelerate the ability of seasoned business execs to keep up, creating a widespread 'not bothered' mindset. But that coming together of those three elements, mature, backwards compatible infrastructure; mature yet innovative end user devices (including IoT systems and services); and the coming of the millennials that have increasingly been born with a smartphone in their hands will make a powerful force against any resistance.
More to the point, the position currently taken by the US President, coupled with the potential 5G gives to areas such as Africa and much of Asia to step rapidly from near-zero to the best comms infrastructures possible, could provide a surprisingly fast movement in the epicentre of global economic activity, just as some of those countries seem to be understanding that democracy may well be, long term, a better option than dictators.
It seems the 5G makes it appropriate to re-phrase the well-known Chinese threat - we are indeed living in interesting times.