MWC Blog: Optimism, Apps and Aspirations

Developing Telecoms' editor-in-chief Alec Barton gives his impressions of Mobile World Congress 2010...

As Mobile World Congress (MWC) draws to a close, the GSMA must be relieved to have reversed the fall in visitor numbers experienced between 2008-2009. With an estimated 47,000 visitors and 1,300 exhibitors spread over 56,000 square metres of exhibition space MWC remains unquestionably the biggest and most important mobile phone industry annual gathering.

There was a more optimistic feeling in the exhibit halls too, with many vendors reporting modest sales increases, although few are suggesting things are back where they were before the 2008-9 downturn. The new App Planet area in Hall 2 attracted particular attention. It’s good to see application developers increasing their presence at MWC, even though you would need a lot of them to replace just one of the missing stands in Hall 8 – Nortel’s, for example.

Or Nokia’s, who this year boycotted the exhibition and instead took over a school building 500 metres down the street. They are scarcely the first company to have done this at a major event but it always raises a question about the ethics of piggy-backing a show without directly contributing. Given the scale of Nokia’s presence it can scarcely have been about saving money. It’s as if Nokia feel that by imitating Apple, who have never exhibited at MWC despite producing arguably the most influential mobile product of the last few years, some of the Apple magic will rub off on them.

Nokia of course have a huge market share, particularly in emerging markets such as India where they hold 70%. However, analysts report that Nokia lost ground globally throughout 2009 with HTC, Samsung, LG and others gaining. Apple, by comparison, holds a market share of around 14% in developed markets and almost nothing in emerging markets - but the iPhone and Blackberry are the aspirational devices. It’s increasingly clear that these devices are driving the entire market.

When you see mobile internet-enabled smart phones designed to retail at US$100 or less targeted at emerging markets, as I have this week, you know big changes are taking place – just as with major developments for remote and rural communications from a GSMA award winner.

Big announcements are always expected at MWC and 2010 did not disappoint. Microsoft ‘s new Windows Mobile 7 operating system was the most high profile. Microsoft of course needs something new if it is to retain credibility in the mobile ecosystem, with one mobile content network reporting that Windows Mobile lost 75% of its monthly smartphone traffic share in 2009, from 8% down to 2%. Handsets using Google’s Android operating system on the other hand saw an increase in market share on the same network of 38%. New Android powered devices from the likes of HTC, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and others were prominent at the show and Google were a major force at MWC for the first time in 2010.

I had expected 2010 to be the year for big LTE announcements but here I was disappointed. It is clear that LTE will be the key technology in converged 4G, all IP, next generation networks. But LTE is still evolving and large scale roll-outs are still a few years off. What seems clearer is that WiMAX will have less of a role in the heart of the network, but as a niche technology for backhaul in new emerging markets it will be key.

Cisco’s take-over of Starent Networks was a major talking point, particularly among networking infrastructure equipment vendors. The move is viewed as highly significant and a demonstration of intent by Cisco to extend and strengthen its presence in all areas of the mobile network. iDATE’s latest survey of the network infrastructure market, published during MWC, shows Cisco held onto its leadership position during 2009, before the Starent takeover. Starent’s large user base and focus on the mobile internet sector can only strengthen Cisco’s overall position.

One other take-over – that of Zain proposed by Bharti Airtel, news of which broke on the opening day of the show, sent more than a few ripples through the industry. It is not entirely unexpected and, in the opinion of many experts, will be the first of many during the next few years as the operator and service provider landscape undergoes major transformation.

In that respect it was clear that the mobile internet is now going to be a major force in emerging markets as manufacturers, content providers and operators strive to compete for a share of business. And this can’t be bad news for users in emerging markets.


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