a week in wireless

Footfalls and toilet queues

The Informer knows enough about the trade show game to know that numbers are always up, much like Oceania has always been at war with  Eurasia. And, although MWC this year felt more spacious, which gave the Informer the sense that it was a bit quieter, everyone else he spoke to felt the show to be busier than last year.

One exec revealed that he always judges attendance at the show by the length of the queues for the toilet. It offered an excellent insight into the mind of an SVP. What to the Informer represents nothing more than an uncomfortable inconvenience is, to the show-going SVP, a metric – something that can be measured and interpreted.

One thing that was certainly measurable was the interest in Nokia and Microsoft’s pre-show announcement that they are to join forces in the smartphone sector. Nokia CEO Stephen Elop happened to be staying in the same hotel as the Informer, and it was interesting to see that he had an entourage surrounding him everywhere he went, including a hulking security guard who looked as if he eats steroids on toast for breakfast every morning.

The presence of the heavyweight made the Informer wonder just who it is, exactly, who might want to kill Elop. Are there some ultra-nationalist Finns pursuing him, angry at the North-Americanisation of their company? Are there a bunch of Nokia fundamentalists hiding round the corner, waiting to thump him on the head with a 9000 Communicator?

It all seemed a bit over the top, as if someone had watched too many films about assassination attempts on the US president. Was the guard prepared to take a bullet? Thankfully we didn’t find out. In fact, all the Informer found out from his occasional proximity to Elop is that he didn’t like the food at the Grand Marina.

Elop seemed at pains to show that this fussiness was reflected in the strategic decision to cosy up to Microsoft. At a Sunday evening press conference, Elop stressed that he had been courted by both Microsoft and Google over its platform strategy, rejecting the Android play for fear of giving too much power to the people at Mountain View. Indeed, he seemed to imply that the decision was taken for the greater good of the industry, to bring balance to the sector, and not just because Nokia didn’t stand a chance with a platform where its competitors have such a substantial head start.

He was keen to talk up the talent he’s promoted up the ladder since joining in September, including Jo Harlow, senior vice president of smartphones, who joined Elop on stage. It was notable that none of the names he checked were Finnish.

With some reaction to the deal casting Nokia as bringing the brawn to Microsoft’s brains, Elop made much of the collateral Nokia brings to the relationship. He claimed that the value transfer from Nokia into the partnership is measured in the billions of dollars, rather than the millions. Clearly seeking to counter the perception that Nokia has become effectively a manufacturing unit for Microsoft, he argued that Microsoft now has “a dependency” on Nokia, and has “placed a very significant bet” on Nokia’s location portfolio.

The issue of licence payments was batted away with the response that paying Microsoft is a lot cheaper than developing a platform in-house. But what everyone really wanted to know was when the new partnership can be expected to bear fruit and, on this point, Elop was vague and non-committal. Jo Harlow told us that Elop would like to see a product this year, before turning to him and gushing: “Stephen, I aim to please”. It was supposed to get a laugh. Instead it was an awkward moment.

But Google’s staying cool. If the firm feels the pain of a spurned suitor, it’s not showing it. Quite the opposite, in fact, with (outgoing) CEO Eric Schmidt telling the world that he’ll happily welcome Nokia into his arms once the foolish little thing has realised her mistake.

During his keynote presentation, Schmidt told delegates “We would have loved if they’d chosen Android but they chose the other guys, that other competitor, Microsoft.” So would the markets, by the look of things, of course, because shares in Nokia took a 20 per cent dive following the announcement of the Microsoft deal. “We think Android was a good choice for Nokia and we’re sorry they made a different choice. We’d like them to adopt Android at some point in the future and that offer remains open,” Schmidt added.

According to Schmidt, Android is now used by 27 handset manufacturers around the world, with 300,000 activations every day. During the course of his keynote address to the congress, Schmidt identified Microsoft as Google’s main competitor, stating that its search offering, Bing, “is good on some things, maybe a little too good in some cases,” while playing down any threat to Google ad revenues from Facebook.

He also said that “it’s already over” for the PC, with the smartphone now set to dominate the online market. “People have moved on to new devices for their games and other interactions,” he said, pointing to the role of cloud computing and imminent arrival of LTE as instrumental in “creating the opportunity for a whole new set of applications” in the smart device space.

“Cloud computing coupled with massive data stores such as Google’s have huge implications for what your phone can do, especially using social networking connections,” he said. Schmidt added that the cloud was unifying everything, creating a device-agnostic space in which “you really can do magic.”

Schmidt told delegates that “everything’s changing again” and that “this isn’t about a phone or a platform, it’s an ecosystem,” before moving on to describe the changing role of the mobile phones from communications device to platform and, now, what he called a “serendipity platform” in which users will give their permission to allow their data to be used to introduce them to new people, ideas and information. “This is the future,” said Schmidt. “Start thinking about the implications of device smartness combined with location-based services and permission to use your and your friends’ data.”

Schmidt said that Google’s core strategy for the future was to “make our offerings better through using social information.” Describing near-field communications as a “megascale opportunity coming for us,” he went on to say that e-commerce and payments will be revolutionised by the upsurge in personalised information. “Models around consumerisation work really well when they’re tied to location, personalisation and advertising,” he said.

Android had a massive presence at the show, the Informer takes his hat off to whoever came up with the little android guy. He (she? it?) is everywhere. It’s a marketing and branding dream. Take a look at the Android/Google showcase in hall 8. It’s quite something. The green guy is everywhere  – Android sweets, Android smoothies, stickers, pin badges, picture  frames, maps, cups, t-shirts. Even the stands, where all the respective parts of the Android ecosystem are showing their wares, are android shaped.

The Informer gets the sense, looking out across the comfy couches, smoothie bars and the big spiral slide in the middle, that this must be what it’s like to work at Google. It’s the quintessential .com experience. All bean bags and table football.

But there’s also something a bit Charlie and the Chocolate Factory about it all. Like underneath this green, playful and friendly exterior, there’s a slightly sinister undercurrent. Maybe the oompa loompas are pulling the strings behind the scenes to manoeuvre the droid into position. Maybe if you stray off the track during the factory tour, some uncertain fate awaits you. Google is quite good at politely declining to give you any more info that it feels necessary at the time. Even if that is none at all.

There was also a certain hysteria created by these little Android pin badges Google was leaking out into the show. But Thursday they had become an entire currency of their own. In hall 8 the Informer saw vendors setting up little trading posts on their stands, laying out rows and rows of Android pins on black cloths for passers by to trade their own stash for. In fact, the Informer’s just checked eBay and yes, someone is selling them off with bids so far reaching as high as £16 for a single pin. Crazy!

Sticking with Android fans, there were a range of product announcements from the usual suspects; Samsung, Sony Ericsson and HTC leading the way.

The operator community continues to work on its own ecosystems and – a year down the line since the launch of the Wholesale Applications Community – the initiative now looks to be gaining some real traction. Among the WAC announcements at the show was the news that Chinese vendor Huawei has provided a WAC-enabled app store for the Philippines’ leading mobile operator, Smart. Interestingly, Huawei will also be providing a compatible handset to the carrier.

The vendor issued a triumphant statement, claiming the app-based ostracism of the carrier community to be “a thing of the past”, which may be overstating things somewhat. The Smart store is based on version 1.0 of the WAC specifications, released this time last year. This year 2.0 was unveiled, and 3.0, we were told, will arrive later on in 2011.

Spanish incumbent and international heavyweight Telefónica was also dishing up a WAC-flavoured breakfast at a 7.30am news conference! The firm announced a multi-platform application play that it says will allow customers to access their applications across a wide range of handsets as well as tablets, PCs and televisions. The project, dubbed ‘Frigo’ until commercial launch when regional names will be announced, will go live in seven Telefónica territories before August, said Tanya Field, director of the carrier’s Mobile Data Group. Frigo makes use of recommendation software from Qualcomm subsidiary Xiam technologies.

Field said that Telefónica hopes that some of the seven markets – Spain, UK, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina – will see services go live in the second quarter of this year. She added that the project was conceived as a loyalty and retention tool, with customers’ applications being stored in the cloud, and made available to them across the range of platforms, so that moving to a handset with a different operating system would not result in the customer losing their apps.

Telefónica is working with developers to “manage the process” of porting applications from one platform to another although Field said that, in some cases, users will be offered closest matches from alternative portfolios if they swap platforms. Android, Windows Mobile, Java and Symbian are all covered by Frigo, although Apple is, unsurprisingly, not participating.

In a neat interface trick, the new service allows users to recommend apps to people whose details are stored in their handset’s contacts database. This is a move that reflects the increasing belief that personal recommendations from trusted sources are far more reliable stimulants of content discovery and app sales. Colm Healy, VP and general manager of Xiam, claimed that users are four times more likely to find content using its discovery solutions than through more traditional techniques.

In other positive carrier news, Informa Telecoms & Media announced that annual MNO revenues are going to exceed $1 trillion for the first time in 2011. Last year the world’s mobile carriers, which number more than 900, generated $965bn in revenues, bringing the milestone into view. By the end of 2015, Informa said, those revenues will be up to $1.14tn.

The Informer met Hans Vestberg for the first time this year, and the Ericsson CEO was in a jocular, knockabout mood. The man’s got his head in the cloud, it turns out. Ericsson announced a partnership with cloud and content delivery specialist Akamai, through which Ericsson will offer a content delivery platform optimised for mobile devices. “As the industry changes, Ericsson has to change too,” Vestberg said. “Today we are focusing on the cloud – more specifically on connecting the clouds – as the last part of the networked society.”

The Informer also met with Ericsson’s Semir Majoub, responsible for spearheading the firm’s recently announced move into the mobile financial services market. While Ericsson is partnered with an unnamed financial player for the time being, Majoub said the firm hadn’t ruled out the possibility that it might apply for its own financial services licence. “If we see that there is a value or need for us to get a licence then we will do it,” he said.

While the Informer is name dropping, he must also tell you that there will be a video interview with Ericsson CTO Håkan Eriksson going up on telecoms.com next week, and the Informer also went on a bus ride with Hossein Moiin, CTO of Nokia Siemens Networks where he got to experience the TDD and FDD flavours of LTE in a drive test. Moiin seemed blown away by the set up, which was a co-operation between NSN, Huawei, China Mobile and Vodafone. It was very cool. The Informer got to watch streaming HD video in 3D over the air.

One late piece of news to emerge is that German carrier E-Plus is to work with ZTE and China Mobile on a trial of TD-LTE in the 2.6GHz spectrum that E-Plus won in last year’s auctions.

So another MWC is behind us. Some things change, and some things don’t – the Cboss stand falling into the latter category. When you’re at the show it’s difficult to get a feel for everything that’s going on but there was one thing that stood out for the Informer this year, which was that hardly anyone was talking about Apple. The price of staying away, perhaps?

Take care

The Informer

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