#mwc12 – The burning issues at Mobile World Congress 2012

1 Mar 2012

On the surface most people want to know about the shiny gadgets that are everywhere in sight at Mobile World Congress, but under the surface 2012 was in many way about apps, LTE and getting smartphone technology into the hands of the next six billion people.

This was my first visit to Mobile World Congress in two years and the changes were immediately obvious.

The most decisive change for me was how tablet devices completely took 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 a tablet computer. Not only that but the majority of apps demonstrated on screens were tablet-based with smartphones following a close second.

That does not mean smartphones didn’t shine – they shone gloriously. On arrival the new devices, the shiny, glittery new things, were evident, however, to show a clear direction on where we’re headed. Quad-core phones such as the HTC One Series cut quite a dash – and HTC’s stand was suitably mobbed.

Also setting a new trend was the 41-megapixel PureView smartphone from Nokia – nobody predicted a smartphone could have such a capacity, so it shows there’s still fire in Nokia’s belly. In fact that was the constant refrain whenever Nokia was mentioned at the Mobile World Congress – ‘expect big things from Nokia this year.’

The Samsung Beam was also a revelation – the ability to project a 50-inch screen onto a wall in high-definition opens up a myriad of possibilities.

You could say 2012 was the year that LTE became omnipresent at the Mobile World Congress with communications giant Telefonica blanketing the entire Fira district of Barcelona with its own LTE 4G network with average wireless speeds of between 50Mbps and 100Mbps. I got to test this on a Samsung Android tablet as I walked around snapping and tweeting Tuesday morning and have to say the experience was blisteringly fast.

Connecting the world – mobile for the masses

But the most predominant trend that was evident – well that I felt compelled to pick up on – was this burning desire by all players in 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 Eric Schmidt’s keynote where he spoke passionately in his usual polite and poised fashion about connecting the next 5bn people to the internet. He has a point. In the past year the world surpassed 7bn people. 2bn of these people are online and of these 1bn own smartphones.

The room for growth is obvious. “For every person online there are two that are not,” Schmidt said. He said that today Android smartphones cost US$200 on average – in a few years time Android smartphones could cost less than US$20, and he wants to put on in every pocket on earth. “The weak will be made strong and those with nothing will have something,” Schmidt said in his vision of tomorrow.

Others like Telefonica Digital are thinking likewise and at #MWC12 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? Phones that are faster and cheaper! These will be ultrafast smartphones that cost less and have 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 Telefonica 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 today, but also on lower price phones that cost less than US$200. Nokia was first off the ramp in this regard with a Lumia 610 device that will retail for €185.

Irish companies at #MWC12

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-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.

Other Irish companies I discovered at the impressive Enterprise Ireland stand were 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 going beyond its usual heartland of TVs and set top boxes into 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.

Show Stoppers at #MWC12

Some of the startling new innovations were discovered early on at the Showstoppers event at Mobile World Congress on Sunday evening. For example I was stunned when a Cambridge-based technology company in which Irishman Dr Mike Lynch’s Autonomy has a stake, Aurasma. Lynch sold Autonomy to HP for stg£7.8bn.

Aurasma was able to demonstrate incredible graphics possible through augmented reality. For example by waving a phone in front of a Harry Potter banner, the images came to life with video – effectively creating a TV out of thin air.

Another show stopping technology was that of Luquipel. The company has developed a nanotechnology liquid that you coat on an expensive device like an iPhone and that sends gases inside the device – the result is you can drop your device with the parts exposed into water and the entire thing is water-proofed. Magical!

The Mobile World Congress 2012 shows we are only at the dawn of a truly innovative age. I’ll leave the last words to Eric 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.”

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