Mobile World Congress 2016: Video, 5G, VR ... And oh, yeah, ad blocking

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg set the tone at the world's largest mobile tech conference, predicting a breakout year for mobile video and virtual reality

BARCELONA, SPAIN — Many declared 2015 to be the year of video, but maybe 2016 is the year of mobile video?

Whatever the case, mobile video was one of the most buzzed-about topics at this year’s Mobile World Congress. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg set the tone by declaring that this will be a breakout year. "Video in 2016 will probably be as big a shift in the way people share and consume as mobile was in 2012," he said, speaking at the Mobile World Congress. "We’re at this turning point."

Other topics at the show included the tantalizing prospect of high-speed wireless data via 5G; virtual reality; screen-less mobile; and, of course, ad blocking.

Video distribution
Like Zuckerberg, BuzzFeed co-founder and CEO Jonah Peretti said he is seeing video take off in a way he never expected. Once a skeptic, Peretti used to believe that mobile killed distribution. In the desktop-dominated days, content would spread during what Peretti called "the bored-at-work hour" when employees would take advantage of their job’s high-speed Internet. "As soon as they’d leave their desk, they’d say ‘I can’t see this, I’ll look at it later,’" Peretti said. "It was something that stopped virality."

Peretti noted that wireless speeds have improved and videos load a lot faster, so that’s no longer the case. In fact, mobile is now propelling viral videos and that "mobile video has been a lot of the driving force behind the growth at BuzzFeed."

David Berkowitz, CMO of MRY, saw the same phenomenon. "In the agency world, everything we’re doing has video at the center," he said. "That wasn’t the case when I joined in 2013, but last year the distribution got so much better."

Part of the reason for that growth, Peretti acknowledged, was Facebook, which launched a proprietary video format in late 2014. Since then, Facebook has arguably gained more or less equal footing with YouTube for video distribution.

Facebook’s experimentation has continued. In December, Facebook began allowing brands to live stream video over the social network. Since startup Meerkat and Twitter’s Periscope have been doing the same since last March, this isn’t necessarily a breakthrough for brands, but it does offer them a much larger platform for experimentation. Southwest Airlines offered a glimpse into operations control when winter storm Jonas hit the Northeast in January.

Zuckerberg himself gave the livestreaming feature a big boost when he livestreamed from his own account during the show.

5G and VR
Though Zuckerberg discussed video, his passion project seemed to be virtual reality. As Facebook’s Oculus headset nears its launch this year, Zuckerberg envisioned life moments that formerly were relayed in video form now being shared in VR. For example, when a baby takes its first steps, now you can not only send the grandparents a video, but you can send them an immersive experience that makes them feel like they were actually in the room.

For marketers like Coca-Cola, Dos Equis and Volvo that have already launched VR experiences, this is good news. Even better news perhaps is that 5G is on the way, albeit slowly. The fifth-generation technology promises speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second, which could handle VR on a mobile device. However, execs from AT&T and Verizon said 5G won’t be here until 2018 at the earliest, and the technology probably won’t hit critical mass until 2020.

Screenless mobile
While the theme of the Mobile World Congress is, naturally, mobile, much of the talk centered around the Internet of Things, which employs mobile technology like sensors and processors to make formerly dumb appliances smart.

For marketers, this is an object of interest, especially since Amazon’s Dash has raised the possibility of giving consumers the option to advance-order their next purchases. Why bother running ads when you can get a prime spot on Dash?

Berkowitz said that Amazon’s other IoT product, Echo, was also drawing a lot of interest. Introduced last year, Echo is a small cylinder speaker that accepts voice commands a la Apple’s Siri. Though it’s unclear how marketers might harness such technology, Berkowitz said that "there have been some interesting discussions about devices like the Amazon Echo. People are trying to figure out what mobile’s like when screens aren’t part of it."

Chris Colborn, chief design and innovation officer of R/GA, wasn’t as impressed. "The biggest theme of MWC this year was the Internet of Things, or IoT, an inevitable extension of the mobile industry in the Connected Age," he said. "But as with CES earlier this year, amongst the latest hardware and software advances and talk of next generation standards, the ubiquitous promise of ‘innovation’ was often hard to see in a mix of disappointingly familiar offerings."

Ad blocking
Apple’s decision last year to allow ad blocking on its iOS 9 ensured that the topic would come up at the show, and it did. Yahoo’s VP of EMEA Nick Hugh drew a line in the sand of sorts as he warned carriers to be "cautious" about adopting ad-blocking technology. "The digital system is a virtuous circle and while some operators may want to reduce costs by blocking ads, ultimately advertising helps drive uptake of all products, mobile services included, so we would urge caution," Hugh told Mobile World Daily, the paper publication circulated at the show.

During a panel with Roi Carthy, CMO of ad blocker Shine technologies, Benjamin Faes, managing director of media and platforms at Google, echoed that sentiment. Deeming Shine a "blunt" solution, Faes noted that "More and more publishers just can't afford to give their content for free," he said. "I just don't want to ruin that ecosystem. ... I'm really concerned by this black-and-white think."

Faes might have added that with 5G on the horizon, ad blockers soon won’t have much of an argument that ads are slowing transmission speeds down much. Of course, that horizon is still as much as four years off, so we’ll be hearing about ad blockers for a while.

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