BARCELONA, Spain — The Trump administration sent a delegation to Spain this week to make its case against the Chinese technology company Huawei at one of the world’s biggest tech trade shows.
But the event, called MWC Barcelona, ended up being favorable ground for the Chinese maker of telecom equipment.
Of the more than 100,000 attendees and 2,400 companies at the event, most ignored the efforts by the United States to impose a ban against Huawei for security and surveillance risks.
Instead, they chose to focus on the coming introduction of long-hyped next-generation wireless networks, known as 5G, not to mention new foldable smartphones, robots and other internet-connected devices.
For Huawei, the enormous conference provided a much-needed opportunity to make a show of force after months of being on the defensive about the American-led campaign.
The company, accused of being an instrument of spying for the Chinese government, was ubiquitous in Barcelona. Huawei had the biggest and most popular booth, which looked like a sprawling indoor city that took up half of a convention hall. The booth featured a demonstration area for its new smartphones, an Instagram-ready digital pond, and a roaming robot. Its outdoor picnic area was catered with Iberian ham, Chinese meat buns, fresh fish and Mediterranean salads.
Even the lanyards worn by conference attendees were Huawei-branded.
MWC Barcelona is akin in scope and hype to the annual CES show in Las Vegas, one of the world’s largest consumer electronics events. MWC Barcelona fills eight conference halls with loud, sensory-overloading booths from companies including Samsung, Sony, Xiaomi, Microsoft, Nokia and Ericsson.
While overwhelmingly male, the event is more diverse than most tech conferences, with people from 208 countries attending. Walking around you heard people speaking English, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, Italian and Arabic.
On Tuesday, after Huawei’s chairman, Guo Ping, used a keynote speech to give a full-throated defense of the company, it hosted one of the week’s biggest parties on the grounds of a stadium that was used during the 1992 Olympics.
American officials were left to hold a hastily called news conference on Tuesday at a booth operated by the Spanish government. They didn’t present any new evidence against Huawei.
The conference previewed many of the hottest mobile trends, particularly the capabilities of new hyperfast 5G networks. For years, the technology has had more promise than actual uses. Executives said the faster networks would debut this year, with wider adoption coming in 2020 and beyond.
To show the utility of 5G, the Chinese company ZTE programmed a band of industrial robots to play piano and drums at the event to illustrate how the ultrafast networks can be used by heavy machinery. Flight simulators, car-racing games, drones and internet-connected beer kegs were also available for testing.
Jonathan Davidson, a senior vice president at wireless equipment provider Cisco Systems, said 5G was ready for prime time, and would enable new applications in augmented reality, health care and industrial factories.
“We’re now moving into an era where 5G has 10 times the amount of bandwidth available,” Mr. Davidson said. “That changes the equation.”
Makers of mobile phones are counting on 5G to ignite growth. Last year, smartphone sales fell for the first time since Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007.
Long a reliable engine of growth in the tech industry, smartphone demand is now sputtering. People are holding on to their devices longer, and there aren’t many new markets where smartphones aren’t already prevalent. More than five billion people worldwide now subscribe to a mobile phone plan, according to GSMA, the industry trade group.
Following Apple’s lead, many companies introduced new handsets at MWC Barcelona with prices that a few years ago would have seemed unfathomable. In Barcelona, Samsung showed its previously announced $2,000 Fold handset with a bendable display. Huawei has introduced a competing foldable device, called the Mate X, which will cost about $2,600 and be available around the middle of the year outside the United States.
“People are demanding more from their phones,” said Maxime Guirauton, a marketing director for Samsung in Europe. “Innovation comes at a price.”
Microsoft introduced a new augmented reality headset, HoloLens 2, which costs $3,500 and is targeted more at businesses than general consumers. People formed long lines to try the gear, including using the goggles in a demonstration to fix water-sanitation equipment.
Google also had a large presence at the show, with its Android software powering the noteworthy new handsets unveiled in Barcelona. The internet company scattered people around the conference dressed in white jumpsuits to help show off the Google Assistant virtual assistant.
Standing at the Samsung booth, Carolina Milanesi, an industry analyst with Creative Strategies, said it was hard to judge how new products introduced this week would fare with customers. Success for gadgets such as a foldable phone will depend on whether there are applications that people are eager to use.
“That’s what’s going to determine whether this is a niche, a fad or mass market,” she said.
[Read our review of the new Galaxy S10 Plus phone from Samsung.]