Mobile World Congress 2011: What's on the bill in Barca?

Smartphones, tablets, apps - it must be MWC 2011...
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor

Smartphones, tablets, apps - it must be MWC 2011...

Mobile World Congress: The Fira, Barcelona

The Fira, Barcelona, with its distinctive twin towers, is home to the Mobile World Congress
Photo: xcaballe

It's that time of year again, when business people circle 14 February in the calendar and jet off to the Spanish city of Barcelona for what looks like a romantic break but is in fact three-plus days packed with frenetic activity - mostly, but not exclusively, inside a sprawling conference centre called la Fira.

Romance is the last thing on Mobile World Congress (MWC) delegates' minds - unless it's a love of mobile gadgets and a passion for industry networking that gets them going. The annual confab draws the great and the good of the mobile industry - and increasingly the software and web world, too.

Last year's keynote speaker was one Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, who told MWC that the search giant would be prioritising smartphone app development, ahead of desktop PC wares. A bigger signifier of how small screens are becoming the magnet for the digital world's attention would be hard to find.

This year, Schmidt returns for another turn on MWC's stage, along with Microsoft's attackdog CEO, Steve Ballmer - always an entertaining MWC veteran. They are joined by Twitter's new CEO, Dick Costolo, and Yahoo chief Carol Bartz, to name a few big hitters from the world of software flying to Barcelona.

Intel's Paul Otellini is also on MWC's bill. As the president and CEO of a chipmaker better known for powering PCs and netbooks, Otellini's presence at a show ostensibly about mobiles and smartphones signifies how the tech world is converging on mobile in ever-decreasing circles.

But that's only half the story. The other half is rectangular and called a tablet. Tablets arrived to shake up mobiles last year - with the launch of Apple's iPad. The device may resemble a keyboardless netbook but it is better described as a giant iPhone since it runs the same OS as Apple's smartphone. Other mobile makers have fallen over themselves to pod tablets of their own. Expect all this shiny, slab-shaped hardware to make its presence felt at MWC, casting a software-focused shadow over the old cellular order.

With such an ever-expanding mobile universe to gather together, one conference centre - however sprawling - cannot hope to contain the whole mobile ecosystem. For a start, MWC never hosts the most high-profile mobile player of recent years: Apple.

The absence of Steve Jobs' company makes MWC donut-shaped at the best of times. This year, iOS developers have not been ignored entirely: the App Planet event includes a concession to Apple's key role in the form of a Macworld Mobile developer day - run by IDG World Expo, not Apple of course.

On top of that, there are also some key events in the mobile calendar lined up in the days before the show kicks off:

  • Nokia, still the world's biggest mobile maker, is holding a pre-MWC strategy and financial briefing on 11 February in London. CEO Stephen Elop is reportedly planning a purge of the old guard of OPK-era executives. Speculation has it he will also announce plans to use Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 OS on Nokia smartphones in certain markets - which, if true, would signify a serious strategy shift for the Finnish mobile giant.
  • HP and Palm also have an event lined up this week - on 9 February, in San Francisco - reportedly to take the wraps off the long-awaited webOS tablet. HP will apparently be touting its shiny new tab around MWC next week.
  • Apple launched the iPad over a year ago, which means there's an outside chance it could spring the launch of the iPad 2 around the time of MWC. The company has been known to schedule a big event that clashes with other industry events, so it's not inconceivable there's some last-minute news coming out of Cupertino.

On the eve of MWC - Valentine's Day no less - a trio of mobile makers are lining up to brief the press. In years past, journalists covering MWC only had Sony Ericsson's press conference to worry about on Sunday evening. But last year Samsung joined the fun, and this year Nokia has decided it wants in on the Sunday night action, too.

By the time MWC opens its doors on Monday morning...

... a bevy of mobile gadgets will already have been unwrapped and papped by the assembled press pack. Most of these new mobile devices will be sporting Google's Android platform. This year, Google is having its own booth on the show floor, marking a coming of age for the search giant. According to analyst house Canalys, Android inched ahead of Nokia's Symbian platform to become the world's most popular smartphone OS last year.

Expect Microsoft's newbie - Windows Phone 7 - to generate a fair bit of noise at MWC too. Last year Microsoft arguably stole the show with the unveiling of the all new WP7. This year, Redmond is in difficult second-album territory - but CEO Ballmer should have a few cards, if not aces, up his sleeve at Microsoft's press event on Tuesday afternoon.

Aside from the Nokia WP7 speculation, there's also a chance Sony Ericsson could deliver its first WP7 handset. The Swedish mobile maker will definitely be unwrapping a PlayStation phone - aka the Xperia Play - a device which, underneath all that branding, is yet another Android handset.

Microsoft's Ballmer is also lined up to do a keynote on Monday. But judging by the contents of his recent keynotes - when he revealed his favourite Kinect game is "Beach Volleyball, baby" - it may be one speech that's more delivery style than insightful substance.

As well as the usual flotilla of device launches and big-name keynotes, MWC delegates will spend much time chewing over apps, including how to monetise apps better and make them smarter - that is, more relevant to a user and their context. Last year's App Planet event also returns to the Fira with mini-conferences for mobile developers.

There's no dedicated Android developer day this year but HP, Microsoft, Nokia, RIM and Samsung are all running events for developers of their platforms. iOS developers are also being catered for by Macworld Mobile. Google said its booth will include pods where developers will be showcasing their wares.

Other technologies and issues on MWC's radar this year include:

  • Augmented reality: CEO of AR app developer Layar is speaking in a session entitled, 'Is reality ready to be augmented?', along with the VP of mobile for travel guide company Lonely Planet and Qualcomm's VP of ventures. The chipmaker has made a big bet on AR in recent years.
  • 3D: expect a launch from handset maker LG, which is teasing a "new dimension" in its Optimus range.
  • Dual-core devices: because having just the one 1GHz processor is so last year, device makers will be falling over themselves to boast about a pair.
  • Mobile advertising: issues up for discussion include big headline topics like protecting user privacy but also more specific issues such as making in-app advertising work.
  • Mobile data: operators' data concerns haven't gone away - so expect operators to chew over how they are dealing with the mobile data explosion, and how new business models such as tiered pricing are working out. Speakers on mobile data and the evolution of the mobile internet include Vittorio Colao, CEO of Vodafone, and Cisco CEO John Chambers.
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