Mobile apps, Google Android and new handsets rumoured
Mobile World Congress 2010 kicks off in Barcelona on Monday. Natasha Lomas sets out her predictions for what is likely to be big at this year's show.
MWC is the mobile industry's flagship annual conference - the CES for handset junkies and network addicts. Pretty much anyone who's anyone in mobile (with the notable exception of Apple) will be making as much noise as possible, along with countless mobile minnows hoping for their big break.
Mobile World Congress has been taking place in Europe since 1995 but in recent years it has undergone a name tweak and relocated to Barcelona from Cannes. You'll still hear plenty of industry professionals refer to the event by its old name, 3GSM - rest assured they mean MWC.
Congress' current home is the Fira de Barcelona - the city's sprawling trade show exhibition space, consisting of multiple halls and labyrinthine corridors, offering 365,000 square metres of floor space for the mobile industry to converge upon, colonise, strut their stuff and show their wares. This year more than 1,500 exhibitors are expected to be taking the wraps off their booths. It's big, it's busy, and headache-free navigation is all but impossible.
This year MWC takes place on 15 to 18 February - 3.5 days fully focused on the world of mobile with around 50,000 attendees expected this year.
But that doesn't mean all the fun is restricted to Fira: for those few days it's impossible to avoid the hoards of mobile-wielding, lanyard-wearing pilgrims around the city, while the grandest boulevards are plastered with mobile-related adverts.
This year will be my third trip to MWC and - casting an eye over the keynotes, press conferences, events and exhibitors - here's my round-up of some of the highlights and big themes to look out for this year...
Mobile applications might themselves be small morsels of software but there's nothing small about the impact apps are having on the mobile space this year. The 'apps-plosion' has not gone unnoticed by MWC's organisers - the GSMA - and apps are on the MWC map in a big way. They're getting their own event-within-the-main-event - grandly dubbed App Planet, with hyperbole - and random capitalisation - to match: "We will make App Planet the new Centre of the Apps Universe for the four days of Mobile World Congress."
It's unlikely that any app event that lacks Apple's presence could become the centre of the apps universe, but alternative platforms to iPhone and iTunes will be keen to encourage as many developers as possible to join their cause.
App Planet is slated as a networking opportunity for operators and platform owners hoping to meet and woo developers. BlackBerry-maker, RIM, has its own developer day on Tuesday, meanwhile Google is hosting an Android developer lab the following afternoon. Vodafone, Motorola and Sony Ericsson are also hosting branded developer events during MWC.
Analyst house Canalys recently suggested "developer bandwidth" is arguably a bigger issue for industry players than network bandwidth.
Expect Google to be making a big impact at MWC this year - from the conspicuous presence of Google staff to the proliferation of Google software.
"[Google is] not just rolling out Android, they're pushing all of their products out into the mobile space," notes Forrester analyst Ian Fogg. "They're pushing with Maps, they're pushing with navigation, they're pushing with Gmail, they're pushing with Google Voice, they're pushing with search, this is all of Google's products that are being pushed out into the mobile market, Android is just one part of that."
This year's MWC promises plenty of action from the boys from Mountain View - not least because Eric Schmidt, will be giving a keynote on Tuesday afternoon - a sure sign of how serious the company is about mobile.
And of course Android will be a strong theme this year. Much hyped ahead of last year's event the platform nonetheless failed to deliver the predicted avalanche of handsets at MWC 2009. Since then it has made strides in the mobile world, building momentum and growing marketshare so delegates out in Barcelona next week should expect to see rather a lot of android-based handsets laid before their eyes.
Mobile makers rumoured to be showing off Android handsets at this year's MWC include Huawei, HTC, LG, Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson (see below) - so watch this space.
Mobile data's growing pains
In recent years mobile network operators have convened on MWC glum-faced and muttering darkly about declining ARPU (average revenue per user). Then came self-congratulatory back-patting over the success of mobile data, with consumers loving the all-you-can-eat data tariffs, they said.
But last year the cracks in this strategy started to become obvious. Consumers were loving data too much - so much that their appetite for the stuff was predicted to put more strain on operators' infrastructure than cash in their pockets. A year later, with smartphone growth outstripping mobile growth, mobile data is continuing its upward march. The days of making easy money off networks with voice and text alone are gone.
At last year's MWC Nokia Siemens Network CEO, Simon Beresford-Wylie, forecast a 300-fold increase in mobile data volumes between 2009 and 2015 but only threefold revenue growth over the same period.
With the rise and rise of smartphones - and with new devices such as Apple's iPad looming on the horizon - operators might be forgiven for thinking the mobile data revenue gap is actually a bottomless abyss. So expect a lot of discussion about data business models at this year's MWC - or in the GSMA's euphemistically optimistic lingo: "how mobile broadband is central to the business strategy of mobile network operators" and how "future success is linked to the internet".
Delegates should also expect to hear a lot about Long Term Evolution - the likely next generation upgrade path for 3G mobile networks. With the world's first commercial LTE network launching at the back end of last year, via operator TeliaSonera in Stockholm, Sweden, a possible '4G' future is taking its baby steps. As with previous years, LTE demos will abound but this year they'll be hoping to garner more eyeballs with fears of network 'capacity crunch' in the air. Femtocell makers will also be hoping to capitalise on crisis talk - by offering the partial balm of in-building data offloading.
Meanwhile, from the rumour mill...
Two particular titbits of pre-MWC gossip caught my eye:
Is Microsoft readying a Zune phone? Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will again be in Barcelona for Redmond's Monday press conference. Windows Mobile 7 is likely to be top of the agenda - the long-time-coming next iteration of Redmond's mobile OS for which a sexy user interface is crucial. But the rumour mill is also rife with speculation that the time of the mythical 'Zune phone' has finally come. Can it be true? Watch this space. . .
Will RIM unveil a hybrid BlackBerry? Also buzzing again is talk of RIM planning a hybrid BlackBerry - part physical Qwerty, part touchscreen, something like the recent Aspen device from Sony Ericsson. RIM's co-CEO Mike Lazaridis will be at MWC to give a keynote on Tuesday. Again, stay tuned.