Zuckerberg’s unholy matrimony with the operators

Mark Zuckerberg took centre stage on Day 1 of Mobile World Congress again – but this time, he seemed very keen to shift the focus away from Facebook and onto its partners. The Q&A chat (hosted by WIRED journalist Jessi Hempel) was focused around Zuckerberg’s internet.org initiative – which aims to bring the benefits of the internet to the 50% of the world’s population that isn’t yet online.

After a 20-minute interview, Zuckerberg was joined onstage by representatives from three MNOs who have partnered with internet.org. And while Zuckerberg’s ideas last year came across as pretty worthy, this year he had his commercial hat on. Last year, internet.org was sold in as a means to health, economic, and social benefits in the developing world. But with the NMOs on stage this time around, internet.org came across more as a customer “acquisition tool” in emerging markets – indeed, Mario Zanotti, SVP of operations at Millicom was bold enough to use that term.

Inevitable really – as Zuck says: “To grow the internet is expensive work … internet.org is about is about growing the operator businesses faster. It’s about ways to empower folks in the industry.”

The audience wilted during the panel discussion – they were there to hear facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg speak, not a group of MNO execs. But the presence of the operators showed that while worldwide internet access benefits consumers, MNOs and service providers alike, collaboration between facebook and operators is very much an arranged marriage, rather than a love match.

Talking of love, there didn’t seem to be much going round for the flagship smartphone launches that traditionally start the show. The sense is that the smartphone space is starting to peak. Samsung for example launched the Galaxy S6 and the Galaxy S6 Edge – the latter featuring a curved screen that, if the Samsung Note 4 Edge that came before it is anything to go by, is a waste of time. Don’t get me wrong, consumer appetite for top-of-the-line smartphones is still there, but mobility has moved on.

The Internet of Things and wearables are the two main threads of MWC 2015. And this year, wearables can be divided into two groups: watches, and other stuff. The fashionability of smartwatches will be one key to their success, and Chinese manufacturer Huawei surprised the crowd at its launch event with the Huawei Watch – it’s probably the best looking smartwatch yet.

Smartphones have shown us that it doesn’t take long for something seemingly sci-fi to become entirely normal – from the use of touchscreens to watching mobile video rather than reading a book on a train. But the key to smartwatches is that they strike upon a use case that changes our lives in the way the smartphone did, and we’re not sure we’ve seen that yet.

By contrast, our favourite gadget of the day was the Babolat Play connected tennis racquet. It’s a top-end hitter that’s endowed with sensors that send performance information to a smartphone app – allowing you to analyse your power, technique, and endurance on the court. Our point being that while smartwatches are cool, Babolat Play will actually make a difference to the tennis player’s life.

Tell us what you made of Zuckerberg and what’s caught your eye at Mobile World Congress – connect with us on Twitter @yodelmobile, and join our #mobilemarketingUK LinkedIn group