The message from GSMA Barcelona: fragmentation

The GSMA World Congress was this week in Barcelona. Though its difficult to identify themes in a conference as large as the GMSA extravaganza, the sense I got from four days wandering its halls was that fragmentation will rule the smartphone market for many, many years to come.
Written by John Carroll, Contributor on

Toshiba TG01

Toshiba TG01

The GSMA Mobile World Congress, which took place this week in Barcelona, is the world's largest telecommunications trade conference. It is rumored that 50,000 attendees descended on this Catalonian city for the event, though that is matched by whispers at hotels and restaurants that attendance figures are considerably lower than past events. I filled out a GSMA survey today which asked, among other things, whether my company was placing limits on trade conference attendance budgets, which to my mind hints that market difficulties are affecting telecommunications companies as much as the rest of the economy.

Even so, it is, quite simply, the largest trade fair I have ever attended. Spread across eight separate exhibition halls, it featured booths promoting companies that covered every possible niche in the telecom tapestry. Attractive models in revealing clothing swam among a sea of mostly men in dark colored suits, which is the oddest thing about the GSMA conference. I have been to a number of trade conferences during my career, and participants are usually attired in stereotypical T-shirts and backpacks. According to a public relations person to whom I spoke, formality is typical of telecommunications conferences, which made this jeans-wearing California guy feel somewhat out of place (next year, I'll pack my suit collection as carry-on).

Apple was a no-show at this year's conference, but the long shadow of their technical innovations and market success was well apparent. Every hardware vendor in the mobile device space is making a touch-sensitive mobile phone these days, and the screen layouts of many bear a striking resemblence to the now-iconic iPhone entry screen. Large screens are becoming increasingly the norm, which is good news for those companies hoping to convince mobile users to consume more video media while on-the-go. MOFILM, a mobile short film festival that got massive coverage at the conference on account of attracting famous people to provide keynotes and hand out awards (well, "a" famous person, a.k.a. Kevin Spacey), would certainly benefit if large screens became more the norm. I can't see mobile media becoming much more than a niche product if screen sizes stay small...unless vendors start including projectors into phones (not impossible, as Texas Instruments displayed some rather nice mini-projectors in their booth), or else provide wires that allow users to plug their phone directly into a TV set (some of the mobile video chips on display can now handle 1080p).

Granted, there are situations where mobile media can be useful. If you are stuck on a long train or bus ride, mobile media can be a sanity-saver. In a mass transit-averse United States, however, I don't see such media as having much of a potential market...unless, as noted, vendors find ways to make the cell phone the conduit to larger display surfaces.

One of Nokia's big announcements was their new "Ovi" application store (which in my opinion, was simply more Apple-inspired "me, too" innovation). It's supposed to be a store that is a one-stop shop for all Nokia phones, with the emphasis on "supposed." There will be only one phone available this Fall that supports the "Ovi" store - the new N97, which makes a release date for Ovi in a May or June timeframe seem somewhat counterintuitive.

One thing that must have suprised Apple, however, is just how much competition their iPhone success has created in the smartphone market. As noted previously, Toshiba is offering a new phone (the TG01, the image for which is featured at the top of this blog) which sports the largest screen I have ever seen on a mobile phone device. Acer, however, is also getting into the phone business. It would appear that what traditional computer companies have learned from Apple's success is that computer companies can be quite successful in the phone business. I expect a lot more of this sort of thing in the near future, and also expect that computer companies will meet with better success than they faced with their push into digital cameras.

These new entrants are bound to lead to more fragmentation, a fact repeated multiple times at the break-out sessions I attended during the conference. Though telecommunications companies would prefer a consistent programming layer to drive application volume and thus smartphone popularity, the business interests of phone vendors run at right angles to that goal. Apple is genetically incapable of releasing its iPhone OS to outside parties (as that would involve releasing Mac OS X to the world, something they will never do), and I doubt that Windows Mobile, Symbian, or any of the Linux-based variants have enough of a market share to serve as "the standard" in ways that Windows proved the standard in the PC realm.

Fragmentation, therefore, will prove the norm. That doesn't mean there won't be attempts to create a common API layer. Yahoo pushed its cross-platform web framework at a roundtable on day one of the conference, though phone device manufacturers in the same forum seemed to throw cold water on the notion. Interoperability seems to be the most handset vendors can manage, something about which Steve Ballmer seemed most honest in his keynote address, while Nokia's CEO seemed to dance around while waffling about an ecosystem built around Nokia "open" platforms.

There's a silver lining, however, in handset makers that are willing to go off in their own platform directions. The most impressive new phone of all the devices I saw in Barcelona was the new Palm Pre device (which, apparently, was announced at CES this past January). It sports a large screen that extends the full length of the device, but in a package that is quite reasonable for those, like me, who tend to keep their phone in their pocket. It has a full QWERTY keyboard that hides under the bottom end of the device. The Palm Pre also runs the "Web OS" platform, which though little discussed by demonstrators at the conference (one claimed it was a brand new operating system), is according to other sites Linux-based.

During a demonstration, a member of the press was rather direct in his questions, asking why Palm felt the need to make yet another platform when so many already existed. I thought the question missed the point. Palm was an early innovator in the handheld space. I bought one of the first Palm devices ever created (the Palm 5000, which at the time still shipped under the US Robotics label), and I remember it being an elegantly simple device. Later, Palm devices got far too complex, and I stopped paying much attention to them, even after they tried to turn them into smartphones.

My past experience of the company, however, leads me to believe that if anyone has interesting ideas about new UI and form-factor directions in smartphones, it is Palm. Making a new platform to support their phones simply makes sense for a company with Palm's ancestry.

One of the highlights of the "Web OS" UI is the "deck of cards" layout concept. Unlike iPhone, multiple applications can run simultaneously on the phone. To navigate between them, you slip into the "card deck navigation" mode (with a gesture at the bottom of the screen), then click the "card" you want to bring front and center.

Another interesting aspect is that most of the applications running on the Palm Pre are written in HTML, CSS and Javascript. I presume they have a custom runtime wrapping the HTML renderer through which they expose Palm-specific objects to the Javascript layer (e.g. Contact lists, SMS functions).

So, to summarize, the future of smartphones involves lots more vendors, lots more competition, and lots more fragementation. Ballmer indicated that there is ikely to be some kind of shakeout that winnows the number of platforms to a smaller number. To that, I say: perhaps...though I doubt the shakeout will be as intense as it was in the PC industry. Phones are personally identifiable in the same fashion as cars. We don't have 1-3 car manufacturers that dominate the automobile market the way Microsoft (or to a lesser extent, Apple) does with PCs.

People are personally expressive in their choice of phone in ways they aren't with their choice of laptop or PC (which are, at the end of the day, glorified tools, however important they might be to most of those reading this blog). I think that will guarantee that fragmentation will remain the order of the day for much longer than some pundits would have us believe.

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