What was making waves in Barcelona this year.
Is Mobile World Congress still relevant? The conference was discernibly quieter this year, and its legacy of being dominated by the 'traditional' heavyweights of the carrier and handset world leads some of the newer players in the industry to see it as all a bit Jurassic Park.
Even so, it remains a key event to take the pulse of the industry, not least because it's where those so-called dinosaurs roar about their plans to stay relevant in the post. The clash between the old and new is what makes Mobile World Congress relevant now.
Anyway, with the dust from this year's show settling, here's our take on the 20 key trends of Mobile World Congress – with a skew towards mobile entertainment, as you might expect.
1. It's all about the user experience
For pretty much every new handset that was shown off at Mobile World Congress, the first thing to be demoed was the user interface. Hardware features like GPS, Wi-Fi and how many megapixels the camera had were very much the last things to be trumpeted.
Nowadays, it's all about how whizzy your UI is. It's certainly a step forward, although arguably also a sign that with hardware features becoming increasingly commoditised, the front-end UI is the main way people can differentiate their smartphones.
Who chooses the interface is an interesting question though. Microsoft won't let its handset partners muck about with the Windows Phone 7 Series UI, yet it's now de rigeur to overlay your own interface on Android.
2. Apps take centre stage (sort of)
Well, as centre stage as they can be when residing in a hall at the top back corner of the MWC venue. The App Planet initiative was a qualified success. Okay, so Hall 7 was full of the same tech firms that were there last year – it's less the apps hall, and more the enablers hall.
But the developer sessions by the likes of Vodafone, RIM and Google were rammed – giving away thousands of Nexus Ones didn't hurt in the latter's case.
The GSMA has work to do for next year to build on this success. Apps are driving sales of both smartphones and data tariffs, so the big handset and operator beasts of the GSM world need to find a way to get more apps on show next year.
3. Who's havin' APIs?
The model of downloading standalone apps accessed via a homescreen icon is here to stay, at least for the next few years. But an important trend for 2010 is apps getting more tightly integrated with smartphone operating systems and interfaces.
RIM coined the term 'Super Apps' to describe this: apps that tie into the BlackBerry OS in this way, pushing alerts to the inbox, entries to the calendar, and digging into the contacts. What's more, these apps also work better with each other via open APIs. That's a wider trend: look at Shazam on the iPhone and the way it points users off to Last.fm or Pandora.
Skype also talked about this idea of being baked into the operating system rather than just existing on the handset as an app – witness the way it's part of the phone's contacts, making it as easy to Skype-call or message your contacts as it is to voice-call or text them.
4. The GigaHertz wars
A 1GHz processor in a phone? It's not such a surprise any more: these chipsets will soon become a standard for smartphones. Qualcomm's Mark Frankel highlighted the potential for this to turn into an arms race, with handset makers competing to willy-wave in a contest to see who has the fastest processor.
Actually, trend number one in this list will hopefully nix that prospect. But it's worth noting that the 1GHz-and-beyond processors are providing the grunt to power this new generation of user interfaces – not to mention the rich media apps and games that run on these handsets.
5. Google is Evil?
We're paraphrasing other people's views there, obviously. Anyone who saw the Q&A section of CEO Eric Schmidt's keynote will have seen the suspicion, anger and paranoia directed at Google from some elements of the mobile industry. The more deeply Google gets into mobile, the more negativity it's encountering.
It's reminiscent of the music industry: whatever Google does, vocal elements are wondering out loud how it's trying to screw them. The more mobile pies the company has its fingers in, the harder it will have to work to keep to that 'Don't Be Evil' mantra.
Getting app developers to love Google more would be a start. Easing fragmentation of Android OS versions and improving the Android Market stall will hopefully be high on the company's agenda this year.
6. Never mind the app stores
Handset firms and platform providers are talking up their UIs, but not talking enough about their stores. Specifically, about how they're improving things like billing and discovery, to help people find apps and then impulse-buy them as quickly and easily as on Apple's App Store.
There's plenty of blather about context and relevance in the mobile industry at the moment, but both could be usefully applied more to the current and next generation of app stores.
Developers don't judge a smartphone platform by the power of its handsets or the 3D wizardry of its menus. They judge it by how much money they can make on its store. Apple has set the bar high, but the strong message we got from developers this week is that they'd like to see more of its rivals making serious efforts to vault it.
7. Microsoft makes waves with Windows Phone
There was, it's fair to say, a lack of really big news at MWC this year. Apple wasn't there, obviously, but with Nokia and RIM focused on services and developers respectively, stop-the-press moments were relatively scarce.
For that reason, Windows Phone 7 Series was a genuine big reveal that held people's attention throughout the show. It's a big leap on from previous versions of Microsoft's smartphone OS, with appreciable thought having been put into what a post-iPhone UI should look and feel like.
Games developers are particularly excited about the Xbox Live aspect, although Microsoft is keeping most of the details under its hat until next month's MIX conference. One question is whether it'll be much easier to port Xbox Live Arcade games to Windows Phone than it will to port, say, iPhone games. If developers are too tied into Microsoft's own tools, it'll be a bigger risk for the mobile crowd to support the platform.
8. Mobile advertising 2.0
Sorry, that's a dreadful phrase. And if we're being accurate, we're probably on mobile advertising 7.6 by now. But there was some interesting chatter at MWC about how mobile ads will evolve this year and beyond.
AdMob's Russell Buckley told ME about the success his company is having with video ads, while wondering out loud what role advertising will play in augmented reality applications in years to come. But the big talking point – although there weren't any announcements on this score – was the plans of the various smartphone platform owners.
Apple owns Quattro Wireless. Google will soon own AdMob assuming the deal isn't derailed. And don't forget that Research In Motion is rolling out its own advertising service, albeit connecting developers up to existing ad networks rather than launching or buying its own. The strategies of these companies and others will define how important ad-supported models become in the mobile apps space.
Also bubbling under at MWC was the sense that virtual coupons and offers may be the first thing to really crack the mobile advertising model. Shazam was talking about its SARA system to let people tag TV ads and get money-off vouchers, Telmap told ME about integrating offers into navigation apps, while on the other side of the Atlantic, social location apps like Foursquare, MyTown and Gowalla are looking to sign more partnerships in this area.
9. Where has all the porn gone?
Remember the first time there was a content hall at Mobile World Congress – or 3GSM as it was known then? The stand imagery and demo videos were famously so filthy, a warning had to be posted on the front door for delegates with strong moral codes (or weak stomachs, given some of the material on show).
Adult content is barely evident at the show now. There was one stand in Hall 7, and Playboy sponsored the MEF party, but that was about it. This isn't necessarily a sign that mobile porn is on its uppers – maybe the companies involved don't need to exhibit at a telecoms conference.
It's not the only sector to have ducked out of MWC though: you could count the number of mobile games companies with stands on one hand too, although there were plenty of games execs wandering around the Fira having meetings.
10. Mobile music takes a back-seat
The biggest music story at Mobile World Congress was Duran Duran's GSMA awards gig, which shows that mobile music is getting considerably less hype than a few years ago.
However, there was stuff to chew over. Spotify's presence emphasized mobile's role in helping it sign up more paying subscribers, while Aspiro was showing off its new white-label music streaming and downloads service, which it says is responding to a demand from operators, particularly those who are also fixed-line ISPs.
The downloads versus streaming thing will be a big issue in 2010 though – tying into the question of whether mobile users want to own music, or simply access it. The offline cacheing feature first introduced by Spotify is fast becoming an essential for streaming music apps, tipping the balance towards access. Yet partnerships like the one between 7Digital and Last.fm on BlackBerry hint at more links between the two worlds – people buying the songs that they've been streaming on their phones.
Incidentally, ME had a chat with Nick Rhodes out of Duran Duran at the MEF party, and it was interesting to hear him say that the band is keen to do something mobile, but focused around connecting with fans rather than flogging them music. It's a sign of a change in how artists (and the rest of the music industry) see mobile.
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