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On with the show

It is time once again for Mobile World Congress. As 50,000 players in the mobile space convene in Barcelona, Mike Hibberd takes a look at some of the likely themes of the show.

The mobile industry is set to descend once again on Barcelona for Mobile World Congress, which has become one of the largest trade shows in the world. Organiser the GSMA is expecting more than 50,000 attendees, and 1,300 exhibitors, while the speaker list is a roll-call of the most powerful executives operating in the mobile space today.

The show has changed a great deal over the years and, while it still purports to be an event for the mobile operators, staged by their representative body, it now reflects the far broader community of organisations that combine to provide the services and content that mobile users consume. Indeed it’s interesting to note that the GSMA now describes itself as representing the ‘mobile industry’ rather than the carriers in particular, part of the same evolution that saw the old GSM World Congress tag removed some years ago.

In line with this, while the big name carriers— Vodfone, Telefónica, America Movil et al—are represented at CEO level among the keynote speakers, they are not given top billing. That honour falls to other players; this year Google, Twitter and Microsoft among them.

Once upon a time, a trade fair called CeBIT, in the German city of Hannover, was the venue of choice for mobile phone manufacturers to unveil new products. As the World Congress grew in size and stature, those vendors started trying to get in ahead of the deluge of announcements at CeBIT, by showcasing their new models at the mobile industry show. That time has passed now, with CES, which takes place in Las Vegas in the early days of each year, the event favoured by vendors. Nonetheless there are two CEOs speaking at MWC this year who are clearly hoping to use the event to work their handset plays into the industry spotlight.

Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer and Nokia’s Stephen Elop both have something to prove. It was Ballmer who pulled Microsoft’s mobile team into a much-needed bout of reflection and realignment. With Windows Phone 7, launched in the latter part of last year, he is now hoping to complete the triumvirate with resurgence.

“Ballmer has a good reason to be there,” says Bengt Nordstrom, CEO of consultancy Northstream. “The launch of WP7 is his makeor- break moment in the mobile market. It’s hard to say whether or not he’ll succeed. I’ve been talking to a number of handset vendors and I don’t find enormous enthusiasm for it.” Windows Mobile’s time out, while much needed in terms of the overhaul the platform has received, has cost it currency and it is probably reasonable to expect some fairly big announcements from Ballmer and his team at the event. He’s a renowned event speaker, as often as not for the forceful eccentricity of his presentations, and it will be one to watch.

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that one of his announcements might concern his former Microsoft colleague, Stephen Elop. The one-time head of Microsoft’s business division took over as CEO of Nokia in September last year. Now that he’s bedded down, says Mark Newman, chief research officer at Informa Telecoms & Media, he will be looking to put his stamp on the company.

“What better place to do that than at Mobile World Congress?” Newman says, before outlining some of the moves that Informa expects Elop to make. “We believe some of the things he’s looking at include moving some senior management away from Finland [Elop is the firm’s first non-Finnish CEO], either to the West coast of the US, or to London,” Newman says. “We also believe that Nokia must be looking to embrace Android and WP7 because that’s what some of their biggest competitors have done,” he continues. “There’s a move from some of the vendors to go back to being more hardware based than software based, so we wouldn’t be surprised to hear them say that.”

In the wake of the hard times that Nokia has been having with Symbian, the now defunct attempt to create an industry homegrown mobile OS, it has been looking to shift attention to Meego, the OS it has developed with Intel. But this is widely believed to be targeted at the tablet market, with Nokia’s smartphone OS strategy still looking dangerously adrift. If Newman is right, and Elop is looking to make a bit splash with a new strategic direction, it will be one of the biggest stories of the show.

Android is just as likely a choice as WP7 and Google’s Eric Scmhidt is making his second consecutive appearance in the MWC keynotes. It will be one of his last acts as CEO of the search player, given the recent announcement that he is to move to the position of executive chairman to make way for Google founder Larry Page who has now acquired enough experience to lead the firm.

In 2010 Schmidt was very much the polite guest and showed deference to carriers’ strengths in billing and customer awareness, describing them as “the most efficient billers by far.” And yet he hinted strongly at change, suggesting that in five years’ time, Google will know a lot more about the carriers’ customers than the carriers themselves, because it will benefit the customers to volunteer that information. Assuming he hasn’t changed his mind, that’s only four years away now.

Last year Schmidt’s presentation was the talk of the show. It’s difficult to see what he can say this year to add to what he said in 2010, if indeed he is motivated to exceed the levels of enthusiasm and attention he generated last year. More likely it is simply the case that a show like MWC now needs to feature the head of Google in much the same way as it needs to feature the head of Vodafone.

For Bengt Nordstrom, Schmidt’s presence is an indicator of the shift in innovation to which the industry has borne witness. “Increasingly the focus for the user is on the sort of services that he and his company provide,” Nordstrom says. “The next innovation or solution from Facebook, Google or YouTube is what makes things interesting for the users.”

One of Google’s successes has been the creation of a solid application ecosystem for the Android operating system that it nurtured. It’s an achievement that the operators don’t seem to be able replicate and one topic on which many will be waiting for news is the Wholesale Application Community that was launched by the GSMA at the show in 2010.

Truth be told it has been a very quiet year on the WAC front, which is far from ideal given how quickly this sector moves. In January this year it was announced that the ten billionth application had been downloaded from Apple’s pioneering App Store. There’s simply no catching up with that kind of lead, especially for an initiative like the WAC, which was launched by a 27-strong operator grouping that lacks the single-mindedness of an organisation like Apple.

“There has to be something on WAC,” says Mark Newman, “although we’re not expecting a major breakthrough. We don’t think they’ve made a huge amount of headway, although we do know that Telefónica is doing some sessions on its application development programme. Given that they were one of the early movers behind WAC, it will be interesting to see whether or not what they’re doing this year is WAC-focussed.”

Without a doubt one of the most popular mobile applications is Facebook. The social networking site has more than 200 million mobile users, who are more than twice as active as its non-mobile users, so the organisation ought to be a perfect fit for a show like MWC. But it is interesting to note that, at the time of writing at least—and the speaker list is not yet finally signed off—there is no sign of Facebook anywhere on the agenda. Instead the world of social media is represented by Twitter CEO Dick Costolo.

The firm’s founder, Jack Dorsey, will also be speaking, in his new guise as CEO of Square, which has developed a credit card reader the size of a key fob that plugs into the headphone socket of a smartphone, turning the device into an electronic point of sale.

This gets us into the territory of one of the other likely themes for the show; mobile in the verticals. More likely, perhaps, to be represented on the exhibition floor than the conference sessions, the expansion of the mobile operator business into sectors such as healthcare, financial services, logistics and transport, among others, is a key focus for operators looking to grow their revenues. And then there are all those technical and operational issues that used to be the headline topics of discussion at this event when the mobile industry was a smaller place.

Spectrum allocation, network optimisation, offload; these are the concerns of the operator day to day, says Bengt Nordstrom. “On the one hand you have the issues that are discussed at the event, and on the other you have the issues that are the real concerns,” he says. “They may not be the same thing because an event like this is more about the dreams and the wishes of what the operator would like to be, and what they’re hoping for.”


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