Street art: A poster by Italian urban artist Salvatore Benintende depicting Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa wearing a protective facemask and holding a mobile phone reading ‘Mobile World Virus’ on the streets of Barcelona. Picture: PAU BARRENA/AFP
Street art: A poster by Italian urban artist Salvatore Benintende depicting Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa wearing a protective facemask and holding a mobile phone reading ‘Mobile World Virus’ on the streets of Barcelona. Picture: PAU BARRENA/AFP

The pickpockets of Barcelona, legendary for their stealth, are having a bad February. Usually it’s a booming month because of the rich pickings of the annual MWC Barcelona trade show (previously the Mobile World Congress). But not this year. The unprecedented spread of the coronavirus has put paid to that.

Every year, the top players in the global mobile industry descend on the Mediterranean city, with its majestic Sagrada Familia basilica, an unfinished masterpiece by the architectural genius Antoni Gaudí.

The event — the world’s largest wireless conference — normally attracts about 100,000 visitors and 2,800 exhibitors from 200 countries. So, there goes the estimated €500m splurge for the economy of Barcelona, which has hosted it since 2006.

MWC has grown so big it has moved from the Fira de Barcelona trade fair venue, which is on the original site of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. The pavilion, built for the 1929 International Exposition, is regarded as having launched modernist architecture.

The congress is now held at the Fira Gran Via exhibition grounds, a mini-city designed by the Japanese architect Toyo Ito. With 400,000m² of floor space it’s said to be one of the largest exhibition venues in Europe, and there is a dedicated underground train and metro station, a nearby shopping mall and a gigantic Ikea.

But with little over a week to go before the MWC was set to start, the GSM Association (GSMA) cancelled its flagship event.

The organisers had no choice after about 40 companies — including Nokia, Facebook, Ericsson, Intel, Cisco, Amazon, Vodafone, BT and Deutsche Telekom — cancelled their plans to attend for fear of the virus.

Huawei shipped its employees to Spain so they could be quarantined for the prescribed two weeks to see if anyone showed symptoms.

The event attracts about 100,000 visitors and 2,800 exhibitors from 200 countries. So, there goes the estimated €500m splurge for the economy of Barcelona"

The organisers e-mailed instructions not to shake hands.

But in the end it became "impossible" to go ahead, says GSMA CEO John Hoffman. "The GSMA has cancelled MWC Barcelona 2020 because [of] the global concerns regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concerns and other circumstances," he says.

"The host city parties respect and understand this decision. The GSMA and the host city partners will continue to [work] in unison and [support] each other for MWC Barcelona 2021 and future editions."

It’s the first time in the conference’s 30-odd years of operation (under different guises) that the event has been cancelled, the organisers point out.

There is more to the annual occasion than the thrill of a huge event and the unmitigated joy of sampling Spanish jamón ibérico served with the characteristic tomato and garlic pesto.

The four-day conference — and the two days of launches that precede it — are the best networking opportunity in the industry. It’s where the big vendors, from handset makers to equipment manufacturers, show off their latest wares. It’s where deals are done, alliances forged, and the year’s brand-new phones shown off.

The event has been the launch pad for innumerable phones and new products, with one product launch after another on the preceding Sunday.

Once, when Nokia reigned supreme, these launches belonged to the West. Then came Samsung, with its mega-launches.

For the past few years, the stage has been owned by Huawei, the controversial Chinese telecoms equipment maker that also happens to sell smartphones and recently took second place from Apple in the global and SA smartphone markets.

This year, as the pickpockets go empty-handed, so will the companies that hoped to make a big bang on this most global of stages.

What it means:

The coronavirus epidemic is taking a heavy toll on the global smartphone industry

But even without the coronavirus, some companies had opted out of the messy madness of the extravaganza. Samsung, for instance, has a standalone launch for its new flagship phones — this year the Galaxy S20 Ultra and Galaxy Z Flip — two weeks earlier. It’s held in San Francisco — where the Silicon Valley media is based — and streamed around the world.

But what will other manufacturers now do for their launch events? And what will the cost of the cancelled event be?

Tens of millions of euros must already have been spent on tent, car and equipment hire, medical and security staff, and other conference expenses. Then there are the estimated 14,000 part-time jobs that will fall by the wayside, along with countless restaurant and bar tips.

The coronavirus is having an unprecedented effect on the global supply chain. Apple, for example, has warned it will probably miss its second-quarter revenue forecast because it can’t sell enough iPhones.

The pickpockets may not make their February targets, but at least the coronavirus contagion risk has been reduced. The effect on the telecoms industry, however, is yet to be calculated.