a week in wireless


Fira and loathing in Barcelona

You know that feeling, readers? The dry mouth. The rapid, shallow breathing. The growing thrill of dread in your stomach. The all but irresistible urge to take flight, to run as fast as your little legs will carry you and not stop until you’re on safe ground, where you can fling yourself down in a heap and pant your way back to normality. It’s what’s known as “getting the Fira” and it occurs in certain species that are indigenous to the Mobile World Congress.

There’s something about large trade shows that makes the Informer feel a little queasy. Maybe it’s all the harsh lighting. Or the ceaseless drone of background noise, the individual constituents of which are impossible to discern. Maybe it’s the sea of bodies, the hive mentality of the whole thing. Jeez, maybe it’s all the cocktails; who knows?

Whatever the cause, it’s a tiring business attending the world’s largest mobile show; the sheer scale of the thing is so large. Although the credit crunch seemed to have taken its toll on this year’s event. It was noticeable that attendance was down on previous years, with the Informer’s straw poll of a score or so of exhibitors putting the contraction at an estimated 20 – 25 per cent.

Interestingly, there were no exhibition staff scanning badges at hall entrances, which was done in previous years to gauge footfall. Maybe it was just a means of cutting some cost for the organisers – the GSMA. Although one naughty cynic suggested to the Informer that it simply removed any obligation on the GSMA’s part to report exact traffic figures to exhibitors that had coughed up for stands, in a year where those figures might not have encouraged onsite rebooking. One for the conspiracy theorists, perhaps.

There was also a lot less news than in years past, so – in the meantime – here is some light music.

Well, there was some stuff happening. Nokia and Qualcomm, for example, announced a partnership to develop WCDMA handsets based on Series 60 and Qualcomm’s Mobile Station Modem chipsets. How times change, eh? Before last summer – when the two firms finally overcame their pronounced distaste for one another – they’d been slogging it out in the courts for three years over intellectual property and royalty payments.

That’s all in the past now, though, and today they stand together, their shared gaze turned to the future. Well, to some WCDMA handsets that will initially be sold in the US, at least. The benefits here are clear for Nokia, which has long suffered from a comparatively undersized share of the North American market. But Carolina Milanesi, research director at Gartner’s mobile devices unit reckons the deal is a genuine winner for both parties.

“Qualcomm needs Nokia as much as Nokia needs Qualcomm,” she told the Informer. “3G is the next battleground in the low end handset space and Nokia needs to make sure the Chinese vendors don’t get the upper hand.”

Chinese vendors like HTC, which this week launched two new Microsoft Windows Mobile handsets, and another Android phone – the latter dubbed The Magic and available exclusively from Vodafone. The carrier is apparently very excited about the Magic, with Patrick Chomet, Vodafone’s head handset honcho, telling the BBC that: “This is the thinnest, nicest Android-powered device on the market.” There are only two Android handsets on the market, of course, which rather takes the oomph out of Chomet’s bombast. The first Android unit, the G1, was also built by HTC and is sold by T-Mobile.

Anyway, the Informer had a brief play with the Magic and his initial impressions were positive. He’s been promised one on loan sometime after the show, so he’ll let you know how he gets on with it.

It was a bit of a surprise that there weren’t a few more Android handsets announced during Barcelona, as speculation that other handset vendors would move into the space had been widespread before the event. For now, if not for long, however, HTC has the place to itself. Well almost, Chinese vendor Huawei also confirmed its own foray into the Android handset space, with a gadget it promises will be commercially available in the third quarter. Huawei said it partnered with a design consultancy to develop a robust and user-friendly interface able to evolve with operators’ differentiation requirements, suggesting that the company will be offering the gadget as a white label device for operators to brand as their own.

Whether or not HTC will look to capitalise on its first mover advantage and make Android a more significant part of its portfolio depends on a number of factors, not least carrier demand. Dave Catt, who is the Taiwanese vendor’s current head of UK and Ireland, told the Informer this week that with all the hoo-ha surrounding Android releases, it was crucial not to overlook the firm’s Windows Mobile activities, which he characterised as the firm’s “DNA”.

Microsoft itself confirmed its plans this week to launch an app store, conforming to one of the buzz themes of the exhibition halls. The news was pretty much restricted to the fact that the launch is impending, though, with the software firm naming Q4 this year as the launch period. Microsoft reckons it will debut with some 20,000 applications, two thirds of which will be consumer – rather than enterprise – focused.

Roderick van der Graaf, EMEA enterprise marketing manager for the mobile communications unit at Microsoft, was keen to point out to the Informer the importance of mobile to the company. By way of illustration, when the firm introduces version 6.5 of its mobile handset operating system in the fourth quarter of this year, the word ‘mobile’ will be dropped from the branding.

“Mobile is a key part of Microsoft,” said van der Graaf, “but Microsoft itself is just a small part of the platform, which also includes operators, handset manufacturers and developers.”

Version 6.5 of the Windows mobile platform will see the company push even further into the consumer space with a flashier user interface and easier access to information by reducing the configuration and number of clicks required. Microsoft also confirmed the launch of its My Phone mobile data back up and restore service, following a leak about the offering last week.

And this was hot on the heels of Nokia’s own app store announcement, which the Finnish firm says will go live in May this year. Billed as an extension of its mobile services platform, the Ovi Store will allow content providers and developers to upload their own applications and sell their wares to Nokia using consumers and enterprises.

The Nokia N97, available in June, will be the first device to include the storefront preinstalled, with tens of millions of existing Nokia Series 40 and S60 users able to use new service starting in early May. (The N97 will also have Skype installed from Q3 this year, the VoIP firm revealed at the show.)

Nokia did not gives details of the revenue sharing agreement developers are likely to encounter in order to sell their apps, but Nokia did say that when the Ovi Store opens in May, it will also offer content providers and developers dashboard reporting to monitor how well their content is selling on the Ovi Store through publish.ovi.com.

On the networks side Nokia’s infrastructure arm Nokia Siemens Networks was not able to share the glad tidings delivered by Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson, which both copped LTE supply deals from US carrier Verizon Wireless. The size of the contracts was kept quiet but the news was seen by some as a serious blow to Nortel and Motorola, which were both kept out of the party. It’s all good stuff for Alcatel Lucent, though, and might be seen as validation of the firm’s decision – announced late last year – to focus more intently on LTE than WiMAX.

But at the show this week the Franco-US joint venture was keen to reiterate its continued involvement in the WiMAX space; at least its EVP for WiMAX was, unsurprisingly. “Alcatel-Lucent is 100 per cent committed to WiMAX in the long term,” Karim El Nagger, Alcatel Lucent’s VP and head of WiMAX activities, said in an early morning briefing at MWC, which was hosted by Intel. Croatian carrier WIMAX Telecom takes the vendor at its word, it seems, with CTO Peter Ziegelwanger, telling the Informer that he plans to stick with the supplier.

One of Alcatel-Lucent’s competitors was not so convinced, though. “The decision by Alcatel-Lucent and Nortel to leave WiMAX [mobile applications] had nothing to do with WiMAX technology but rather they lacked a competitive edge,” said Wei Yuan, senior director of global marketing at Chinese vendor ZTE’s WiMAX solutions business. He went on to say that Alcatel-Lucent’s inability to secure deals with the banner WiMAX deployments in the US (Clearwire) and Japan (UQ Communications) lay behind the Paris-headquartered supplier’s decision to trim down its WiMAX R&D investment.

He was upbeat about the prospects for his own firm, though. “We anticipate a boom in WiMAX take-up for fixed applications in emerging markets this year,” he said, adding that: “We are already talking to Alcatel-Lucent customers.” The cheek of the man.

The chat from the operator community at the show remained focused in part on regulation and the need to get rid of it as much as possible. Both Vodafone and Telefonica were making noises about regulation at the show, voicing concerns in particular about the European Commission’s frontal assault on carriers’ lucrative termination and roaming rates.

Not all carriers have the hump about this, though. There was an off site meeting this week between CEO members of the Mobile Challengers group of carriers, a gathering of third, fourth or fifth placed players in European markets with a collective axe to grind about what they see as the protectionist activities of incumbent carriers. Base, Bouygues, 3, Play, Avea, Wind and E-Plus are the core members, and the CEOs of five of these players were on hand to air their grievances.

These guys are all members of the GSMA, of course, but the existence of this group reflects the power structure of the GSMA, which is controlled by the largest players. Some of the complaints make for interesting reading, though. Chris Bannister, CEO of Poland’s Play, was particularly vocal. As a new player with a little over two years’ of operation under his belt, Bannister was unable to get a roaming agreement with O2 until three months ago, he said, making serious problems for his international business with the UK’s large Polish population.

He also has to deal with mobile number portability timings in Poland of 51 days, he said. 15 per cent of his subscriber base had churned to Play and he suggested this would double if more effective MNP was introduced. The incumbent players, Vodafone (Polkomtel), Orange and T-Mobile (PTC), have no interest in seeing this happen, he said. The data roaming rate he can get from T-Mobile is Eur3.75 – that’s wholesale remember – whereas E-plus will do it for Eur0.25. The Informer will be having a longer chat with Mr Bannister in the next few days, so keep your eyes open for his opinions in more depth.

One employee of one of the members, when asked by the Informer how the Challenger group’s relations with the GSMA were, replied “they hate us.” Some might view the challengers’ complaints as sour grapes from carriers that lack the scale to compete with more successful players. If any of the assembled CEOs were offered the top job at Vodafone, say, they’d probably jump at it; they’re guns for hire. But 51 days for MNP? That’s nothing short of ludicrous, and the discrepancy in the wholesale roaming rates does indeed smack of protectionism.

You go to a show like MWC and you’re struck time and again by the remarkable pace of development in this industry. Then you listen to the story of someone like Bannister and you realise that some things never change.

Time for a foot rub, methinks.

The Informer

  • MWC20 Barcelona


5 comments

  1. Avatar Fay Arjomandi 23/02/2009 @ 6:31 pm

    I really enjoy reading your articles. Well written, full of fact and entertaining.. Keep up the good work

  2. Avatar Karine Olmos 23/02/2009 @ 6:32 pm

    Hi,

    Just wanted to write a short note to say thank you for making me laugh for the past few years with your brilliantly written newsletter. It gives a great start to my saturday mornings (I live in Oz). Please never stop!

  3. Avatar Peter Grossenbacher 23/02/2009 @ 6:33 pm

    Just a short note, I love the way you write your comments. I get a good laugh every time, despite the information being interesting as well. ;=)

    Keep it up and take care,

    Peter from Switzerland

  4. Avatar Azita Arvani 23/02/2009 @ 6:34 pm

    Dear Informer,

    Thanks for the article.

    I heard from Nokia that their Ovi Store rev share was going to be 70-30, similar to iPhone’s.

  5. Avatar Veran Vincent 23/02/2009 @ 6:34 pm

    Dear Informer,

    I always read your weekly e-mail with a lot of pleasure, enjoying a lot your style and the relevance of your “not-politically correct” comments.

    I have a question on roaming rates between Poland and UK because I’m not sure I understood correctly your point.

    Do you mean that Poland’s Play pays 3.75€ per MB to T-mobile UK while E-plus (Germany) pays only 0.25€ to T-mobile UK?

    In any case, Play should use another partner MNO in the UK, can’t they?

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