Mobile World Congress – connecting the next 5bn people

8 Mar 2012

The site of the 2012 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain

The recent Mobile World Congress was in many way about apps, 4G networks and getting smartphone technology into the hands of the 5bn people in the world who have yet to experience internet.

The most decisive change for me in the two years since I last attended was how tablet devices have taken over. In 2010, no one was carrying a tablet computer (the iPad didn’t debut until March 2010). In 2012, every single stand and every second punter was carrying one.

This does not mean smartphones didn’t shine – they shone gloriously. Quadcore phones such as the HTC One Series cut quite a dash.

Also setting a new trend was the 41-megapixel PureView smartphone from Nokia. The constant refrain whenever Nokia was mentioned at the congress was: ‘Expect big things from Nokia this year’.

The Samsung Beam was a revelation, too – the ability to project a 50-inch screen onto a wall in high-definition from a tiny mobile device opens up a myriad of possibilities.

You could say 2012 was the year LTE became omnipresent at the congress, with Telefónica blanketing the entire Fira district of Barcelona with its own LTE 4G network with average wireless speeds of up to 50Mbps. This is based on lightRadio technology developed in Dublin by Bell Labs’ R&D team.

I got to test this on a Samsung Android tablet and have to say the experience was blisteringly fast.

Watch a video of the first look at the HTC One X smartphone at the Mobile World Congress 2012 here:

First look at the new HTC One X smartphone at the Mobile World Congress 

Mobile and broadband for all

But the most predominant trend that was evident was this burning desire by all the industry to bring the mobile and broadband revolution to the developing world. This means cheaper smartphones, and more widely deployed, dense wireless networks.

This was best encapsulated in Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt’s keynote speech where he spoke about connecting the next 5bn people to the internet. He has a point. In the past year the world surpassed 7bn people. Two billion of these people are online and of these 1bn own smartphones.

“For every person online there are two that are not,” Schmidt noted. He said that today Android smartphones cost $200 on average – in a few years time, Android smartphones could cost less than $20, and he wants to put one in every pocket on earth.

“The weak will be made strong and those with nothing will have something,” he said.

Telefónica Digital thinks likewise and along with Mozilla demonstrated a new phone architecture that relies entirely on web-based HTML 5 applications and run via the Firefox web browser.

The implications of this? Cheaper, ultrafast smartphones with all the expensive and slow middleware taken out. This opens up opportunities for entrepreneurs and developers in developed and developing economies to take part in the burgeoning apps economy.

“We are very conscious of markets like Latin America, where smartphone penetration is very low,” said Telefónica Digital’s Carlos Domingo. “We are taking the software stack developed with Mozilla to develop low-end devices with smartphone capabilities and bring smartphones to the masses.”

Microsoft is no slouch in this regard and the software giant’s Microsoft’s Windows Phone lead for Western Europe Tom Vandendooren said the company is working to make sure its Windows Phone architecture appears not only on pricey business phones, but also on lower-price phones that cost less than $200.

Nokia was first off the ramp in this regard with a Lumia 610 device that will retail for €185. A particular highlight of the show for me was the number of Irish technology companies that were present this year – an estimated 70 companies – and perhaps the biggest stand I’ve seen from an Irish company was that of Ezetop’s.

The company developed technology that enables mobile phone users to send top-up value to one another worldwide and it was impressive to see a large screen showing how top-ups were being sent from places like Africa and South America to India and elsewhere.

Irish companies at Mobile World Congress 2012

Another Irish company I discovered at the impressive Enterprise Ireland stand was BoxPay, a Dublin start-up that is helping telcos unlock the value of their billing relationship with consumers.

Dublin electronics and software company S3 is also cutting a swathe into the digital entertainment space of smart devices and smart content delivery.

Another company to watch is Tango Telecom, which is striking deals in countries in Africa, giving operators the ability to price voice services dynamically based on cell load, location, time of day, subscriber type and/or subscriber activity. It won an award at the Mobile World Congress last year for Best Customer Care and CRM solution for its work with Airtel in Africa.

And finally I met The Now Factory, which is helping telecoms operators to combat declining revenues with its Rapid App Identification (RappID) service that identifies the emergence of smartphone and Over-the-Top (OTT) mobile applications on data networks within days.

Mobile World Congress 2012 shows we are only at the dawn of a truly innovative age. I’ll leave the last words to Schmidt, who predicts that self-driving cars and robots will be with us sooner than we think: “The ultimate achievement will be when technology actually disappears and becomes a part of every day life. Instead of worrying about cables and where content is stored it’ll just be there, like electricity seems to have just always been there.”

Read more on the Mobile World Congress 2012:

#mwc12 – The burning issues at Mobile World Congress 2012

#mwc12 – Massive deal for Cubic opens up 680k global Wi-Fi hotspots

#mwc12 – Google’s Eric Schmidt – ‘Let’s connect the next 5bn people’

#mwc12 – Telefónica to launch ‘Wayra’ start-up incubators across Europe

#mwc12 – Nokia reveals smartphone with 41-megapixel camera

#mwc12 – Facebook reveals one ‘Ringmark’ to unite them all on mobile

#mwc12 – Microsoft working on sub-US$200 price point for Windows Phones

#mwc12 – Wireless sharing tech to debut alongside HTC One in April

#mwc12 – Telefónica and Mozilla pioneer smartphones built on HTML 5

#mwc12 – Sony unveils new Android UI with Xperia P and U smartphones

#mwc12 – Telefónica shows off download speeds of 100Mbps via LTE

#mwc12 – Samsung unveils new Galaxy Beam and Tab 2 series

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years