The Mobile World Congress – and with it the world’s largest mobile trade fair – is back in full force after the pandemic years. Tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world are guests. And yet the brilliant comeback clearly shows that smartphones are only exciting enough with gimmicks.

For many years, the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was considered the most important event in the technology industry, right after the CES in Las Vegas. Because at the beginning of each year, all well-known manufacturers presented new smartphones, tablets and smartwatches there every minute.

The enthusiasm of the audience and the unrestricted attention of the trade fair was always guaranteed, because the advances made by the manufacturers every year resembled small sensations. Every year the bar was raised, the previously unthinkable suddenly became possible.

After years of the pandemic, a canceled trade fair and two cautious replacement events, Mobile World Congress is now back. But something has changed. What you hear and see at the trade fair hardly ever triggers a storm of enthusiasm. On the contrary: you already know a lot.

Big celebrations for small innovations

However, the MWC is not to blame. It is the smartphone that has lost its radiance and is dragging the trade fair down with it. Some manufacturers have apparently registered this. Because many well-known brands in Europe, such as Sony or Samsung, are now leaving the field to Chinese suppliers and are only offering one stand where products can be seen that were announced weeks ago – for example the Galaxy S23 Ultra (here in the stern test) . Former public favorites such as LG and HTC have stopped production altogether for a long time.

But regardless of whether you already know the devices or not – they all share a fate. The changes that are presented at the pompous press conferences with perfectly played enthusiasm are simply not enough.

Lenovo, Xiaomi and Nokia are currently making the most headlines. The most exciting product? A prototype that is far from ready for the market. With the Nokia, spare parts can be exchanged within a few minutes, the Xiaomi 13 Pro charges quickly, is fast and takes great photos. Features shared by other smartphones.

Nokia and Xiaomi are by no means special cases. In principle, the following applies to all new products: It charges a little faster, the battery is a little bigger, the processor calculates faster and the display shines a little brighter. The camera also takes nicer pictures – but you can only see differences if you compare the pictures directly. None of these are reasons to throw your own device in the corner and wait impatiently at the front door for the new purchase to be delivered.

Old mobile phone concepts rethought

For a moment it looked as if the way out had been found: foldable and collapsible smartphones. But surprisingly little is heard from the established manufacturers about the last big hit in the industry, which briefly gave rise to hope that the next stage of evolution was imminent. The Honor Magic VS is a new folding smartphone from the former Huawei subsidiary and Oppo now also offers a flip phone, but both concepts have not arrived on the mass market even after several years.

Nevertheless, there are still the most headlines for such ideas: Lenovo is therefore backing up again and bringing a new possibility into play to enlarge the screen area on request: rollable displays. The company presented both a laptop and a smartphone whose display can be rolled out. The notebook turns 12.7 inches into a whopping 15.3 inches, while the smartphone turns 5 inches into 6.5 inches.

In videos and short tests, it looks very promising. But the bad news: Both devices are prototypes, and there are no details on the release of a finished product. It is also not possible to estimate how durable these devices would really be in everyday use – and so it remains an exciting concept with no foreseeable implementation. Since devices that deviate from the well-known concept have hardly caught on so far, it’s still exciting to see whether Lenovo will really spend the money to make this concept suitable for the masses.

The hard truth: This is often not innovative, even if it is certainly extremely difficult to build such a device with modern screens. Even Nokia had collapsible, foldable and extendable devices on offer at the best of mobile phone times, Motorola celebrated global success with the Razr. Even then, the wildest ideas remained a niche market. It’s enough for a brief moment of attention, but very few customers actually grab it in the end.

High prices discourage buying

There is also a completely different problem: In an interview with the star, Samsung explained that the holding times of smartphones have increased noticeably. In the past, very few customers kept their devices for more than two years because there was simply too much going on, today it is three years and more (why hardly any top smartphones are available for less than 1000 euros).

This results in a spiral that inhibits innovation: Manufacturers have to raise prices, expensive devices stay with customers longer, experiments are often only accepted by enthusiasts. It is difficult to try out new things without paying the risk in advance. At the end of the day, it’s just small steps that are primarily reflected in the increased performance of existing components, but rarely in surprising revolutions.

Perhaps the history of the smartphone is actually on its last legs and a completely new technology is coming our way. It could be glasses, because Apple is apparently in the starting blocks with such a novelty. This assumption was also told in 2017, with nothing to do but wait and see.