It was an exciting Mobile World Congress this year with a new location, more exhibitors and more visitors making it without doubt the biggest mobile event of the year without exception.
Starting with the location, the new buildings offered none of the cool vibe of being between Plaza Espana and the palace, with its multi-coloured fountain light displays and proximity to the city centre. However, given the size that MWC has now become, the new site offered a far better environment for the exhibitors and despite the 1200 metres from one end of the site to the other, the moving walkways did at least allow you to take some breaks from walking the halls.
For me, the big news of the event was around the competing players for the lower end of the mobile OS space. Given that iOS and Android take up such a large proportion of the current smartphone base and with RIM and Microsoft battling for the 3rd place, it is nice to see some new entrants trying to find their own niche in the marketplace. In first place (my opinion) was Firefox OS from Mozilla. This HTML5 based OS on top of a Linux kernel has lots of support from the mobile operators, desperate to find some alternatives to the Apple/Google control of the app markets. It also aims to drive developer support from the very developers who have been developing for the web for many years (far more than those working on iOS and Android). The devices shown came from ZTE and others are becoming available over time. In the short term, the devices are aimed at developing markets and in that I see success, with low spec cheap devices which can have access to a wide variety of HTML5 applications and plenty of web content.
In addition to Firefox OS was the Ubuntu OS from Canonical. The Ubuntu stand was not nearly as busy as the Firefox stand but the demonstrations of the OS were pretty outstanding. It really offered a different but very pleasing interface compared to that from iOS and Android. The problem with Ubuntu was not with the OS itself, but around the manufacturers who might make use of it and the application developers making apps available for end users. I did not buy into the argument that many developers already use Ubuntu for development and hence would find it easy to write apps for Ubuntu phones. In my experience, developers will develop for those markets where they have an opportunity to make money – either through sales or through some sort of freemium model. I just can’t see mass market appeal for the device manufacturer and without a base of devices in the marketplace, I see a real lack of apps. I do not predict we will see many Ubuntu phones and that it will not be around in three years (in fact I’m not even certain about seeing them at MWC2014).
Lastly, in the OS space, we have Sailfish – the re-incarnation of Meego and Maemo. This seems to have a reasonable amount of support and although with less of a profile than the others has a real place in the ecosystem especially as it can also be targeted at other devices such as smart TVs etc. Although this will be a niche player, I do see it as having a place in devices over the next few years but not in the competitive high-end smartphone market.
Outside of the OS we had the annual request from operators for less regulation and on the devices side a raft of high end smartphones from the likes of Sony, Huawei, ZTE and LG. Samsung had a massive!!! stand, but were waiting on the launch of the Galaxy S4 in March for their major mobile announcement of 2013. Quad core processors, larger screen sizes (although with similar form factors) and the use of the new Android Jelly Bean 4.2 features such as Photo Sphere which allows a user to take a full 360 degree immersive picture of the space around them. Nokia showed their new 105 low end phone aimed at €15 in developing markets and showed that a low end phone can be cheap but meet many of the requirements of those markets. There were also a huge array of fantastic new Android (in the main) tablets to feast your eyes on and hope that a magnanimous Father Christmas will take pity on you at the end of the year.
NFC was a key part of the whole event and pushed and supported by manufacturers, operators and the GSMA. It has been used with the conference badges over the last few years and in fact I was on a previous trial of NFC through NXP and Phillips back in 2007 or 2008. It has certainly taken some time to take off! This year, not only was NFC on the MWC badges, but many people took the opportunity to load an MWC NFC app to their NFC enabled phones and use the special entry points to the show without the long queues or the requirement to show photo ID. There were also many demonstrations of the various uses of NFC within the “Connected city” part of the show and you could even (wow) use your NFC enabled phone to buy things from the food stalls with a Gemalto and Telefonica enabled mobile phone given to various VIPs at the beginning of the show!
I was pleased to see some cars at MWC, with Ford showing off some interesting links with Spotify (Ecosport SUV drivers will have access to a wide selection of songs from Spotify) and also revealing their super connected B-Max car is coming to Europe. The voice technology comes from Nuance with nine languages and automatic localised language emergency calls.
Roaming is always a topic of conversation at MWC, given the vast numbers of people flying into Barcelona and wanting to make phone calls, send texts and use data services. Even many employees not paying their own bills are slightly worried about the bills they may be racking up especially when it comes to data and so wifi tends to get mass usage when it is provided FOC. The problem with wifi is the congestion in the 2.4GHz band and therefore the reduced rates that everyone gets from the service. I opted for a Vodafone Spain SIM card obtained from a very nice saleswoman in a Vodafone store in central Barcelona. This provided me with all the data I wanted during the week and a phone number that friends and family could contact me with. It is frustrating to have to carry two phones, but massively cheaper (at approx €15 for the week). Companies such as Syniverse and Roamware were talking about their products for helping operators with maintaining their connections with their customers whilst roaming and ensuring that customers keep the same services that they have at home.
So, in conclusion, another MWC has come and gone and with the normal array of exhibitors, events, parties, networking and announcements. For me, the vibe around the event was really surrounding the new mobile OS space, with Firefox OS coming out as the principal mover. It is a risky space to be in though. One analyst I spoke to ruled out any of the new players from making any real progress during the next year. For me, Firefox has the best chance of success through its concentration on a marketplace for HTML5 apps and promoting web technologies, its support from the operator community (although this can disappear quickly as was found with WAC) and their desire to focus on developing countries in the near future. I am a fan of web technologies so I am perhaps a little biased, but certainly an area which will result in many inches of news over the coming months and hopefully some success.