The simplest statement with which to sum up the Barcelona mobile conference is to say The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are abroad in the land. You can almost hear the beating of their hooves. The report that Nokia has said it expects a 10% fall in mobile sales in the coming year. Nokia itself saw its sales fall by 15% from 2007 to 2008, with the fifth largest manufacturer Motorola suffering a 53% drop during the same period.
Bear that in mind as all the major players are there kicking and screaming and clawing and yelling that theirs, theirs, is the solution and the way the mobile phone industry will go.
The elephant in the room which none of us talk about is Apple with its iPhone which has already fanged around half the smart technology and, in a sense, has defined itself as the smart technology in mobile phones.
So the Mobile World Congress convention in Barcelona is cursed with the industry undergoing negative growth and with enough players to fill a revivalist meeting. Making more noise too.
They are using phrases you know exist and are dimly, but not clearly aware, of a definition. There is going to be a lot of cloud computing, whatever that might be, so watch out for it. And mobile broadband — as opposed to mobile narrowband, silly — is going to be big. Huge. Enormous.
All this against an industry where there are too many players, too many products and a slipping market.
Riding through the Barcelona mobile conference are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — from the Book of Revelation — Conquest, Violence, Famine, and Disease — and Apple iPhone. Except do not mention that last one, old chap, we have enough troubles. We do not need a fifth horseman.
Two years ago all the talk at the Mobile World Congress was of the imminent arrival of the Apple iPhone, and how it was going to change the industry.
One year ago, all the talk was of Google’s open-source Android operating system, and what a radical impact that might have.
In BBC blogs it is pointed out, often, that the iPhone has only a tiny fraction of world handset sales.
But what it has is the smart phone market. Go to Barcelona and its unstated influence dominates everything. A walk around the halls provides plenty of evidence of its influence.
Touchscreen phones are everywhere — and although early versions appear pale imitations, some of them now look as good as the original, and have a lot more firepower.
Android has not yet made it and is still an each-way bet. Anssi Vanjoki of Nokia show the N97, a touchscreen phone with a very neat slide-out keyboard. This phone will be with us in a few months. It looks pretty good. But it has to catch up with iPhone. Mission impossible?
Statistics show that it was only the arrival of the iPhone which encouraged many users to see their phones as surfing devices. Now everyone is playing catch-up. And not too successfully.
Google? Bit of a disappointment there. Only one Android device — T-Mobile’s G1 — on the market. Which is a bit old hat. There was also a non-working prototype which looked a bit like an iPhone.
Google’s mobile chief Hugo Barra insists hundreds of applications are now being built for the new Android operating system proved that it was going to be very popular with all sorts of manufacturers.
Although, of course, he does not actually know for this is an open-source system.
The figures are, in a sense, encouraging. There are currently almost 100 million subscribers to mobile broadband, and the GSM’s estimates put that number at over a billion by 2012.
But, equally, it is a horrid truth that every time we have a technology transition, a number of players don’t make it. Let us not list those who have died in technology transitions in computers alone. It is too depressing.
As a consequence, one of the biggest talking points at the show is expected to be infrastructure.
In theory the current 3G infrastructure is seeing the end of a 10-year cycle but we also know that 4G is being held back as long as possible because, frankly, the networks have not got the money.
So there are fill-ins.
Take it that the High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA) infrastructure that currently drives mobile broadband can support data rates of up to 7.2 megabits per second (Mbps) if the wind doesn’t change and you hold your mouth just right, and the next generation, known as HSPA+ which could drive that number up to more than 20 Mbps — but not exactly where you want to use it at the moment. HSPA+ will be implemented in a number of markets worldwide later in 2009.
LTE promises speeds of up to 100Mbps — but requires major changes in the cellular base stations and no one is willing to put up the cash so forget it until 2012.
Bengt Nordstrom, chief executive of mobile consultancy firm Northstream, said, ‘I haven’t seen a case where anyone benefits by being the first to adopt a new technology — they are just guinea pigs for the rest of the industry. Every time we have a technology transition period, a number of players don’t make it, and that’s probably the case this time as well.’
You could argue that the Palm Pilot makes total nonsense of that argument but let it pass.
Everyone who is anyone is at Barcelona including the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but excluding Apple which simply does not need to fight it out with the rabble.
And everyone is saying their new device will make waves in Barcelona. Which will be very pleasant. But will it make shock waves in the shops and knock Apple from its perch? Ripples, possibly. Tsunami? Forget it. Some samples:
Palm Pre smartphone: Fully-connected, multimedia and all those good things. Can move, share, backup, and update data across devices and do it ‘in the cloud’ although no one is quite sure what that might be. Is this a threat to Apple? Go away.
Bengt Nordstrom, chief executive of mobile consultancy firm Northstream, said, ‘If you put a wide range of smartphones on a desk and step away two meters, it’s very hard to tell them apart — so that’s why software will be crucial in going forward.’ And, an unhappy reminder, Apple has 2,000 pieces of software.
Sony Ericsson: Two new handsets although, sadly, the interesting one isn’t here until Christmas. The one available is the sexily named W995 which is as exciting as a mangle. The one for Christmas has will be the S60 v5 device which will have — new innovation this — a big screen and finger-driven interface provided there are no legal objections.
Sony Ericsson will be adding movies to its Play Now product — enabling subscription-based access to a movie library, watch as much as you want for a monthly fee. But you may already have seen Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Rocky XXII.
Vodafone is launching 3G-enabled 835 handset with GPS. Wow. Not just one. Three. Of course, similar products are sold at supermarket Tescon’s as own-brand products back in the UK but we will not mention that.
Vodafone’s first consumer 3G mobile phone with GPS is the Vodafone 835, tailored to suit their Vodafone Find and Go navigation application. Lots of gubbins and a big screen with a 2.0-megapixel camera, a second camera for all-important video conferencing, and the usual Google Maps, Vodafone Music, email, Bluetooth and FM radio.
Or take off GPS and you have the 735 and 736. Both feature a 2.0-megapixel camera, 3G internet, Google Maps, Vodafone Music and the like, with the 736 available in rose, white and silver, and the 735 ordinary black. Remember these names. They may not be with us long.
LG will be unveiling its new flagship phone, the LG Arena, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. This new phone will have a 3D User Interface that will provide four different home screens for quick access to its features. Big breakthrough there. According to LG, the 3D S-Class UI was specifically designed to be a ‘more fun and engaging gateway to an amazing multimedia environment.’ Music, movies, pictures and more are within reach, thanks to intuitive, touch-based 3D menus.
LG Electronics Mobile’s President and CEO, Dr. Scott Ahn said, ‘The direct, intuitive and dynamic S-Class UI will be unlike anything that has appeared on a mobile phone before. With rich 3D graphics, touch sensitivity and exciting multimedia capabilities, it will truly make Arena a fully loaded multimedia phone.’
Not that it will be anything like an iPhone. Certainly not. Perish the thought.
The big news – at least bigger than most we were told — Nokia is following in the footsteps of Apple with its own apps store. At the GSMA Mobile World Congress here, Nokia announced its ‘Ovi’ store will be open for trading from May.
Nokia’s next flagship smartphone, the N97, will be the first Nokia device to have the app store software integrated. The N97, announced in December, goes on sale in June.
Google recently has announced an Android Market for phones that use its Android OS, and Research In Motion plans to open a Blackberry online store next month.
But what if they held a party and nobody came? Except, of course, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?