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The devastating impact of cancelling the Mobile World Congress

February 14, 2020, 1:58 PM UTC

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Just as computers and the Internet failed to create the paperless office, cheap and ubiquitous video-calling has made nary a dent in business travel. Dealmakers, teammates, customers, and, most importantly, salespeople all intuitively and measurably know the value of face-to-face communication. 

This is why big business conferences, love them or hate them, remain so important—an assertion that will be tested with the global coronavirus pandemic. I love and loathe events, especially the tech kind. Davos is platform for preening and blowharding, but the opportunity for multinational companies to see scores of customers in one go is undeniable. CES in Las Vegas is even worse, a cesspool of tech humanity which nevertheless is a must-attend for everyone who is anyone in tech precisely because the gang is all there. I love TED, a few private events I can’t name, and, of course, Fortune Brainstorm Tech, which happens this year July 13-15 in Aspen, Colo.  

workers dismantle cancelled mwc show
Workers in Barcelona are dismantling the MWC show after its sponsors cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak.
David Zorrakino—Europa Press via Getty Images

It doesn’t matter, of course, what I like or don’t like. These meetings are crucial to business, which is why the cancellation of Mobile World Congress, to have happened later this month in Barcelona, is so important. It’s a 33-year-old cell-phone industry institution, and more than 100,000 people show up. (I went in 2004, when it was called 3GSM—compare the “3” to today’s 5G—and held in Cannes, France. My mission was strictly to secure an interview with the CEO of Motorola. It worked. We sent Aaron the past few years.) 

The cancellation of MWC will have a devastating economic impact. It will hurt Barcelona, the companies that sunk capital into their exhibitions, and the association that puts on the show. The group is rightly concerned with the health and safety of its attendees, and feels for the victims of the virus. But its hand was forced by the cancellation of its exhibiting companies. 

The question now is what happens next. Will sales of 5G phones falter because the companies that make them can’t sell them to partners at one giant conference? Or will they get innovative and find other ways? I suspect the latter—and also a brutal shakeout in these events, indispensable for global commerce as they are. 

Happy Valentine’s Day. (I love your feedback, bad and good.) Data Sheet returns Tuesday, after the U.S. celebrates a day that used to honor only George Washington but now pays homage to all the country’s presidents, including the incumbent.  

Adam Lashinsky

Twitter: @adamlashinsky


This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


Make it stop. You have to feel for those poor IT administrators in the Pentagon. They've probably got generals keeping top-secret plans on thumb drives and laptops all over the place and all they want is some secure cloud storage. Seems like it's gonna be a long wait. After years of battles over awarding the $10 billion JEDI cloud contract, the brass finally gave it to Microsoft, only to be sued by Amazon alleging presidential bias. On Thursday, a judge temporarily blocked the start of the contract while the court case goes on.

I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. The stock market's most valuable car company, Tesla, is going back to investors for more money with a $2 billion share offering. Wait, didn't Elon Musk just say he wasn't going to do that? I guess funding wasn't so secured. (Also, major pet peeve: Debt is also part of a company's value. Including debt, Tesla is still worth less than Ford, though it has just passed GM.)

Adding some pizzaz. Elsewhere on Wall Street, Nvidia's sales to data centers helped the company beat expectations for the fourth quarter. Its share price, already up 15% this year, jumped 7% in pre-market trading on Friday.

Walking the beat. The war on Huawei continues apace. The Justice Department expanded on last year's criminal indictment against the Chinese telecom giant on Thursday, adding charges including racketeering and conspiracy to steal trade secrets. The DOJ also filed charges against bitcoin anonymizing transfer service Helix, alleging it assisted in money laundering. "Seeking to obscure virtual currency transactions in this way is a crime,” says assistant attorney general Brian Benczkowski.

Time's up. Workers at Apple retail stores will have to be paid for the time taken to search their bags at the end of their shifts, a court in California ruled. Employees said the searches and waits could take anywhere from 5 to 45 minutes.

Moving too fast and breaking things. Fast-growing e-commerce site Wayfair said on Thursday it would cut 550 jobs, or about 3% of its workforce. In a nice use of the royal "we," CEO Niraj Shah explained to the Boston Globe: “Through two years of aggressive expansion, we no doubt built some excess, inefficiency, and even waste at times, in almost every area.”


With the rise of social media, fewer people maintain their own kind of curated presence online anymore. Who needs a website showing off work when you can make a LinkedIn profile? Who needs a family photo site when you can post on Facebook, Insta, or Google Photos? Well, British designer Laura Kalbag thinks we're all making a mistake by ceding control over our Internet identities to big tech. In an essay, she argues for bringing back the personal touch. And without the creepy factor:

It does rather defeat the point of having a personal website, if you then hook it up to all the tracking mechanisms of Big Tech. Google Analytics? No thanks. Twitter follow button? I’d rather not. Facebook Like button? You must be joking. One of the benefits of having your own personal site is that you can make your personal site a tracking-free haven for your site’s visitors. All the personal websites I’ve shared here are tracking-free. Trust me, it’s not easy to find websites that value their visitors like this!


A few long reads that I came across this week:

This Internet Millionaire Has a New Deal For You (D Magazine)
Matt Rutledge, the man who invented the deal-a-day concept with, launches his next venture: A Mediocre Corporation.

From first kiss to unfollowing – culture that sums up love in 2020
(The Guardian)
A book redefining marriage, a riotous show about dating, the secret meanings of breakup songs and a sex show to put your back out … ahead of Valentine’s Day, our critics pick works that sum up passion in our turbulent times.

YouTube’s Secretive Top Kids Channel Expands Into Merchandise (Bloomberg Businessweek)
Cocomelon videos get 2.5 billion views a month, and toddler superfans will soon have toys and albums they can buy.

Jackpot (Marker)
How two lottery-crazed bank clerks cooked up China’s biggest bank robbery of all time.


Putting politics aside to close the skills gap By Alan Murray

Facebook says its dating service is hot—but experts say it’s probably not By Danielle Abril

Telehealth startup Ro launches a ‘digital health clinic for men’ By Sy Mukherjee

Verizon to double the number of cities with its 5G mobile service this year By Aaron Pressman

The latest company to show big losses is — surprise — Airbnb By Polina Marinova

How to approach difficult conversations when your coworkers drive you nuts By Jennifer Mizgata


All hail the fans of London's Natural History Museum. The museum held its annual photography awards and let the public vote on its favorite. And now it's going to be your favorite, too, I predict. Click through and check out "Station Squabble." It's a subterranean rodent battle of epic proportions.

Have a happy Valentine's Day and a great weekend. 

Aaron Pressman

On Twitter: @ampressman