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What to expect from Mobile World Congress 2009

On 16 February, the majority of the mobile industry will gather in Barcelona — expect announcements about netbooks, Android, Windows Mobile, widgets and web standards
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

On 16 February, the world's mobile-phone industry will gather in Barcelona to show off its latest products, announce roadmaps and debate the pressing issues of the day at the Mobile World Congress.

The economic downturn will be a spectral presence throughout the show. Most of the mobile industry is hurting right now, and the rest of this year — and probably beyond — is likely to see more plummeting profits, more cancelled products and probably more layoffs.

Some companies are in a precarious position; to pick a prime example, all eyes are on Motorola to see if the ailing manufacturer can surprise the marketwith a judicious application of the Android stack. The company has not made a groundbreaking handset since the Razr, which came out five years ago, and many analysts and observers are seeing this year as make or break for Moto.

Motorola is not the only manufacturer expected to show off new Android phones: others include Huawei, HTC (which produced the first Android handset, the T-Mobile G1), Sony Ericsson and Lenovo. Samsung was supposed to introduce an Android mobile at the event too, but it recently delayed the launch until the second half of 2009.

Android has also been installed, mostly on an unofficial level, onto netbooks and mobile internet devices (MIDs), and this year's Mobile World Congress is expected to spill over with these small, cheap machines. That will mark a shift in content for the show, which was never much concerned with notebook PCs until they started widely using the cellular networks for connectivity.

Most netbooks currently run Intel's Atom chipset, so the chip-architecture firm ARM and its associates will be keen to show off what they can do to lower the power requirements of a small, cheap laptop. As ARM is mainly known for designing the innards of mobile phones, it is expected to port similar technology to netbooks, and provide a challenge to Intel's dominance in that market.

One company that could be in the early stages of a unforeseen resurgence is Palm, which recently introduced its Palm Pre handset and brand new webOS operating system to positive reviews. Although the Pre was exhibited at the CES show in January, Mobile World Congress will provide an opportunity to compare the new handset and OS with its upcoming competitors.

Microsoft's announcements this year are also keenly awaited and the subject of widespread speculation. Chief executive Steve Ballmer is lined up for Barcelona, where he will head up Microsoft's press conference and participate in a panel discussion entitled 'Moving toward an open mobile ecosystem'. His presence alone indicates that the software maker has a big announcement to make, after several years of introducing only incremental updates to the Windows Mobile operating system.

The launch of Windows Mobile 6.5 is likely to feature, although there have been plenty of rumours of other arrivals: for example, a Microsoft-branded smartphone and the forthcoming omission of the word 'Mobile' from 'Windows Mobile'.

The identity of the successor to 3G technology — likely to be known as '4G' — was hotly contested last year. It now appears that the long-term evolution (LTE) of 3G will beat mobile WiMax outside developing countries.

However, the economic climate is likely to discourage any short-term move by operators to rip out and replace their 3G networks with any new standard, and this year's Mobile World Congress will probably be relatively quiet on the subject. Instead, operators such as Vodafone are expected to tout software-upgradable alternatives such as HSPA+, which are simpler and cheaper upgrades to make. These alternatives may not provide the super-speeds promised by LTE, but they could help encourage customers to use more mobile data — a major goal of every operator at the moment.

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