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Mobile World Congress preview: The year of Linux

The show formerly known as 3GSM looks set to have a strong focus on mobile Linux this year, as well as mobile WiMax, femtocells and hosted apps
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Valentine's Day is just around the corner and, if it's that time of year again, it's time again for 3GSM.

Except, this year, the organisers have dropped that moniker for the event, which is one of the world's largest showcases for new mobile devices and technologies. Perhaps because the industry is now looking beyond traditional 3G and GSM, the Barcelona show will henceforth be known simply as Mobile World Congress (MWC).

The wireless technology WiMax — one of the new technologies that is not 3G- or GSM-based — will certainly pull in the crowds, but its high bandwidth and range will prove to be little more than frustrating for a UK audience. Until an Ofcom-led spectrum auction later this year, it is not even certain yet whether businesses in this country will be able to use the technology's most exciting flavour, mobile WiMax.

Although some phones will doubtless cause a stir, this year's big buzz is unlikely to surround any particular handset. We can expect, however, to see more devices taking on some of the features that have made Apple's iPhone such a hit. This year's phones are likely to be sleeker and more user-friendly than before, while touchscreens — with ever-improving user interfaces — will also become more prevalent. We can also expect to see more on the rise of "high definition" (HD) on the mobile phone, both in video playback and capture, although the utility of HD on the small screen is yet to be determined.

What will certainly be the subject of much interest and debate is the evolution and potential of mobile Linux. There are several industry consortia dedicated to putting open-source software onto handsets and the concept now has the backing it needs to pick up momentum. Manufacturers, operators and developers all like the idea of being able to standardise applications across handsets, and it is in some ways remarkable to consider that only last year the idea of mobile Linux was being widely derided.

We can expect to see one or two major companies join or shift between certain mobile Linux groups, and we will also be getting a look at what is already being done with Google's Android and rival Linux-based platforms. Nokia's intended purchase of the mobile Linux specialist Trolltech is also likely to be the subject of much discussion.

As usual, there will be a host of content providers in Barcelona. This time, however, they will be bolstered by the fact that 3G-based technologies are finally delivering the speeds that are needed for people to actually use these content services on a regular basis. Much will be made of mobile games and marketing, but a multitude of useful business applications, such as remote access to hosted services, will also be on show.

Several manufacturers will be displaying their femtocell products — small base stations for the home and office designed to route calls and data usage off the cellular network and onto a fixed-line connection — to an audience of intrigued mobile operators, who are keen to avoid congestion on their expensive 3G networks.

Finally, as with last year's show, crowds will be gathering around "rollable" displays — the promised "paper killers". This year, however, that technology is likely to enter production, bringing the possibility of cheap, easy-to-read electronic displays within reach at last.

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