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With Smartphones Ubiquitous, Add-Ons Take Center Stage at Mobile World Congress

Virtual reality was especially hot, while all that enthusiasm around smartwatches has waned.


When everyone has clothes, it’s time to accessorize.

That was basically the theme at this year’s Mobile World Congress. Sure, there were lots of new phones. But it was the devices that plug into smartphones that were of more interest on the Barcelona showroom floor.

Even with the big phone debuts from Samsung and LG, there was as much interest in the companion products as the new flagship phones. A central feature of LG’s G5, for example, is a connector slot that allows it to become a better camera, hi-fi audio system or even a mini robot.

Samsung, meanwhile, complemented the new Galaxy GS7 and GS7 Edge phones by debuting Gear 360, a camera that captures 360-degree video, using the phone as viewfinder and remote control.

Virtual reality was probably the hottest of the accessory categories.

LG introduced a new VR player that plugs into the G5. HTC, meanwhile, finally put a ship date and price tag to its Vive virtual reality product, which will be available in early April for $799.

Companies also used virtual reality as a lure to get people into their booths. Samsung took attendees on a roller coaster while SK Telecom created a custom virtual submarine ride, though the story and graphics were a bit cheesy.

Qualcomm used augmented reality to create an “invisible museum” that popped to life as attendees held up a tablet to various unseen objects.

Android co-founder Rich Miner, who is a partner at Alphabet’s GV venture firm, said he thinks virtual reality will have some uses in entertainment and augmented reality has some business applications, but that some of the enthusiasm is probably overblown.

“I think it is going to take longer to evolve,” he said. “I don’t think people are going to see the kinds of volumes that we see from handsets.”

The one companion category that was decidedly less represented this year were smartwatches. None of the major players introduced new wrist-worn devices at the show, though Motorola President Rick Osterloh told Re/code he is committed to the category and to expect a new Moto 360 watch this year.

The reality of a smartphone generation also has people thinking about new kinds of services that can be delivered to those who rarely look up from their devices. European carrier Orange, for example, is in the midst of acquiring a bank with plans to target a new generation of customers more likely to handle financial transactions on their phones.

So what about those phones? Is innovation really dead?

Not dead, most agreed, but there was definitely a sense that this year’s crop of devices was only incrementally better than last year’s.

“Certainly I think the rate of innovation in phones has slowed,” Miner said.

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