3G fades from conference radar

3GSM: Picture messaging, mobile video, Wi-Fi and smartphones are demanding attention at this year's 3GSM World Congress - but all at the expense of 3G

The 3GSM World Congress -- the world's biggest wireless expo -- is highlighting some of the industry's main themes of the moment as it gets underway this week. They include multimedia messaging (MMS), Wi-Fi and next-generation smartphones, but less prominent on this year's radar are more futuristic technologies such as 3G. The conference, which brings together network operators, equipment suppliers and software vendors for the telecoms wireless industry, is expected to attract more than 28,000 attendees from 154 countries. But in contrast to last year's conference, next-generation 3G services are taking a much lower profile. Instead, at the forefront this year is MMS, billed as the successor to text messaging, with added graphics and sounds. UK operators launched their MMS services with great fanfare at the end of last year, ahead of Christmas, but the market is expected to get a further boost once operators allow the services to work across networks and from outside the UK. With charges of around 30 pence per MMS picture message, compared to about 10 pence for traditional text messages, network operators and content providers are treating MMS like the goose that laid the golden egg. Content providers are present in great numbers at this year's conference, keen to supply image banks for MMS users. Openwave and PacketVideo announced on Wednesday a new product able to deliver video over MMS, using technology from PacketVideo integrated into Openwave's MMS software. The video clips can be downloaded by users or streamed from a server, the companies said. The companies are demonstrating the software at 3GSM. Web logs -- or "blogs" -- are also gaining interest from operators as a way of increasing MMS and SMS traffic. UCP Morgen and NewBay Software this week have both introduced software allowing operators to offer a mobile blogging service to customers, and UCP Morgen claims to already have thousands of mobile blogs running on its uboot.com portal. Wi-Fi or 3G?
Another strong theme of this year's conference is Wi-Fi, which some operators are seeing as a stop-gap alternative to broadband 3G networks. Wi-Fi is a wireless LAN technology that is used in laptops, but also increasingly in mobile devices such as smartphones and handheld computers. In the UK, British Telecom and its competitors have begun setting up public hot spots in areas such as cafes and airports, and there are estimated to be about 1,500 hot spots across Europe. France Telecom is unveiling details of its new Wi-Fi initiative this week, involving its ISP subsidiary Wanadoo, its mobile network operator Orange and other units, which will include public hot spots as well as networks for home users. Intel is discussing Wi-Fi this week, ahead of the launch of its Wi-Fi-enabled Centrino laptop chip solution next month. Boeing, in association with Intel, is planning to offer wireless networks on its airplanes, with Lufthansa planning to offer wireless Internet services on some flights. Gadgets galore
From a hardware point of view, the handsets unveiled at the show are all equipped with colour screens, a component that has moved into the mainstream. They are continuing to integrate the functions of other mobile devices: having added the ability to act as MP3 and FM radio players, GPS receivers, PDAs and game consoles, they are now adding cameras and even video recorder and players. Bluetooth is also increasingly making its way into handset hardware. On the software side, the stage is set for a pitched battle between the allies of Symbian -- including most major mobile phone manufacturers -- and Microsoft, to decide which operating system will power the most advanced handsets. Samsung bought a 5 percent stake in Symbian earlier this week, strengthening its ties to the software company, while Microsoft announced that T-Mobile would begin carrying its Windows-powered smartphones. Orange is to launch a second Windows smartphone alongside its SPV. Other manufacturers are taking their own directions, such as Symbian investor Motorola, which is to begin using Linux for its new handsets, and Symbian ally Sony Ericsson, which announced a 3G handset using its own proprietary software. All the hype around GPRS and Wi-Fi seems to have come somewhat at the expense of 3G, which was one of the big stars of last year's conference. Nokia and Sony Ericsson both spotlighted their upcoming 3G handsets, but the hardware will not launch until later this year. In the UK, Hutchison is planning to launch 3G services this quarter, but the launch date has been delayed before. The company may be the only one to launch 3G in the UK this year. European operators paid about 100bn euros, or about £60bn, to buy licences to 3G, which will deliver broadband services such as live video to mobile phones. Services are already running in Japan.

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