Going Mobile: What to Expect at GSMA Mobile World Congress

By Nathan Eddy  |  Posted 2009-02-13

Going Mobile: What to Expect at GSMA Mobile World Congress

The mobile industry's largest exhibition, GSMA Mobile World Congress, kicks off in Barcelona on Feb. 13. The four-day conference is expected to draw nearly 50,000 attendees and more than 1,000 exhibitors from across the globe.

As the show draws nearer, rumors continue to circulate and whispered expectations are intensifying. But in the face of a tumultuous economic climate, is the 2009 event to be a more muted affair? Here's a rundown of what to expect from the mobile industry's biggest event of the year.

Perhaps the biggest change from the 2008 conference will be a difference in tone. The first keynote, entitled "Sustaining Growth in Challenging Times," suggests much of the exhibition will be dominated by discussion of how best to weather the recession. The crisis, which has already forced Canadian telecommunications equipment company Nortel Networks into bankruptcy, will likely cast a pall over the conference, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

Kay said he expects the Mobile World Congress, once known for extravagant, over-the-top spectacle and parties, to be less lavish this year. "People are going to be more modest because it would be considered in better taste to appear so," he said. "Even if some people have the wherewithal, they might not demonstrate it because it's in poor taste."

Considering how many of the exhibiting companies are in worse shape than they were the year before, Kay said a subdued tone is entirely reasonable-and probably expected. "A lot of companies doing business with partners want to see some restraint," he said. "They don't want to see someone spending money like water when they shouldn't be. It sends the signal that these people don't understand the world they're living in."

When it comes to technology advances and major vendor announcements, Kay said he thinks the buzz around undisclosed Microsoft and Dell announcements (Windows Mobile OS and a possible smartphone, respectively) will continue to grow. However, he said he is hesitant about the idea of a company like Dell, the world's largest computer maker, entering what he feels is an already saturated market.

"There are rumors of a number of phones coming from vendors who have never been in the phone business before-I don't see that as a particularly good idea," he said. "It's easy for Nokia to come in and update [a] phone or introduce a new handset, but it's something else for Dell to come in and say, 'Here's our new phone, what do you think?'"

Acer, Dell, Samsung, Opera, Verizon


Rumored specs of flagship products are already leaking onto the Web before the show begins, like Acer's DX650 and X960 smartphones. Some of the other big announcements relate to what won't be at the show, such as Samsung's Android phone, which is based on Google's mobile operating system. The Guardian cited a Samsung marketing executive as saying there will be "no Android phone at the show."

Software announcements are also expected to play a large role in this year's show. Opera Software has already said it will debut Opera Turbo, a technology that increases mobile browsing speeds while reducing data downloads. Opera Software said the technology can cut data requirements by up to 80 percent.

John Jackson, vice president of research at mobile intelligence company CCS Insight, said there is likely to be great interest in LTE (Long-Term Evolution), the major 4G ultrahigh-speed mobile data technology. Verizon Communications, making its first appearance at the show, is scheduled to announce the LTE equipment vendors that the company has selected for its deployment, scheduled for the end of 2009.

"Mobile traffic is increasing at a dramatic rate, while the operators' ability to monetize it does not, or even declines over time," Jackson said. "To offset that, they want you to connect ad hoc to their higher-speed networks and pay for it." That means it's no longer just "the smartphone show", he said. "Toshiba, Acer, Dell, all the laptop guys-this is now strategic to all of them. ... Whether it's a Game Boy, a portable media player, whatever, it's increasingly likely over this year that it's going to have cellular connectivity embedded in it."
Dell's rumored smartphone may not debut at the show, but Jackson said it's a pretty safe bet the company is working on one. However, Jackson echoed Kay's sentiments that with so many companies debuting smartphones at the show (CSS predicts 20 Android models launching in 2009 alone) vendors will have to fight for attention. "Anyone launching an Android phone, or any kind of smartphone for that matter, unless it's a truly groundbreaking product, it's going to be tough to command attention among the ambient launch noise," Jackson said.

Despite the gloom graying the glitter of this year's show, Kay said it is still one of the best conferences around. "A good trade show has a lot of liquidity," he said. "It allows sells and buyers to meet once a year, view the goods, do actual business [and] take a view of the coming year."

And despite a tempering of conspicuous consumption, Kay predicted that there will still be plenty of jazzy technology on display. "Will there still be cool handsets? Yeah, probably," Kay said. "The world is still trying to catch up with Apple."

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