It’s proving harder than I expected to round up MWC 09 – the mobile industry’s biggest trade show – this time around. This is partly because I spent most of my time either in small meeting rooms with no windows or rushing to the next small meeting room with no window. Not enough time to browse. It’s also partly because there was no single overriding theme of this year’s conference – instead there was progress on a large number of fronts.
Actually I think that last point is a good thing. The cellular industry could rightly be criticised for the way it jumped from Next Big Thing to Next Big Thing through the early part of this decade, without spending long enough on each to get it set up correctly, see consumer behaviour adapt and build up a reasonable business.
One of the strongest themes this year was, unsurprisingly, smartphones with lots of support from the applications, App Stores and services that go with them.
We saw smartphone announcements or launches from no fewer than Nokia, Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson, HTC (with Vodafone), Huawei, ZTE and Acer. These announcements stretched from the super high end (Sony Ericsson IDOU with a 12 Mpixel camera) all the way down towards the low end of the mid-range (Nokia 6303 Classic at €135).
Android-powered smartphones were less in evidence than many had hoped for although there were announcements from Samsung, HTC, Huawei, and Acer while Sony Ericsson said it would announce Android phones later. It’s now clear that H2 this year is when we’ll see more.
Windows Mobile 6.5 was launched, sporting several improvements to the UI, the menu system and a much-needed overhaul to the browser. No phones will be available using it until Q4, though. In spite of the slow evolution and rumours of its uncertain status within Microsoft, Windows Mobile is still commanding support with LG announcing that it is majoring on the platform, Acer and ZTE both launched a number of WM devices.
The Symbian Foundation demonstrated its momentum by announcing 14 new members including GPS chipmaker SiRF, MySpace, HP, Qualcomm and SanDisk. It also picked up a €500m loan from the European Investment Bank.
App Stores were in evidence with announcements from Nokia, Microsoft and China Mobile. Symbian mentioned that they are also doing considerable work in this area behind the scenes on the back-end – “App Warehousing” on behalf of other companies who may run their own retail store including Symbian apps. The Nokia store, interestingly, will be built on recommendations – a nice differentiator if they can make it work well. We didn’t end up with a mall full of App Stores out of the show, but it’s clear there’s a lot more to come in this area during 2009, leading to a messy mapping across handset vendors, software platforms and developers.
One of the key drivers behind the development of smartphones and core phone software is of course social networking. It was good to see the INQ1 walk off with the Phone Of The Year award, showing that you don’t have to have a smartphone to do this stuff well. It was also very interesting to see other related developments, for example:
- Ericsson Multi-Media making several moves in this area to provide back-end support for operators’ in interacting with social network services
- Nokia’s beta version of Contacts on Ovi, which is today frustratingly limited but points clearly towards a whole new approach to handling your social network from your phone (more on this in a later blog)
- Neustar shifting its ground from instant messaging to supporting a richer variety of communication types, feeding a presence-enabled contacts book in the phone
- Sony Ericsson announcing its new strategy based on the philosophy that the combination of communications and entertainment (through increasing levels of sharing) is more than the sum of the parts
As a result of social networking I think we are at the start of a profound set of changes in the way that phones work, with the biggest impact to be felt in the core phone functions and the user interface.
A few other key items from the show:
- Verizon announced the winners of its contract awards to roll out the new LTE network – big winners were Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson, with Nokia involved in the core network too.
- The GSMA set a target date of 2012 for a universal charger (based on micro-USB connectors), with support from 17 companies – about time too, consumers would say
- Several approaches to contactless charging were on show – the Palm Pre with inductive charging and Qualcomm with magnetic resonance
- Qualcomm’s Mirasol displays got a bit more airplay with an announcement that a new fab is being built later this year to move into volume production with colour displays, and another from LG that it is committed to working with Qualcomm to bring Mirasol displays into phones
- TI – who showed their mini DLP projector on a reference design last year – lined up a number of real products that were already using it
And finally – the recesssion.
On the Monday morning at the start of the show it was eerily quiet and the signs were not good for a strong turn-out. However, it picked up and I understand – from talking to the GSMA – that numbers were strong. It looks as if people made shorter trips to the show and that means the big losers would have been the Barcelona hoteliers, whose rates were just silly.
It was really good to see that the cellular industry is not sinking to its knees under the economic conditions. In fact the opposite seems to be true. Large operators and the GSMA joined in saying that cellular is one of the few industries that can help lead countries out of recession – although they were light on details of how that might happen. Of course there’s some positioning going on here, with major decisions on regulation and spectrum looming in most areas.
But I also discussed this theme with a couple of mobile banking companies (Fundamo and Redknee) and they put the view that there’s nothing like a good recession for triggering reviews of legacy systems to see if lower cost ways of serving the population can be found. In their opinion we should see many opportunities for mobile players to make big strides in helping other industries during the coming years.
Either way the message from the industry was that it must not slow down its growth plans.