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Barcelona stages the global battle of mobility

The Catalan capital confirms the success of the new mobile platforms for Internet and wireless telephony

The edition of this year's Mobile World Congress, the top global gathering of mobile telephony, shows that the new platforms gain market share at the expense of traditional environments. This confirms that innovation is the prerequisite for their way (even to stay), in an environment as ultracompetitive as is the wireless communications market. Unfortunately, it seems that Europe does not quite believe it.

Alfred Comín | 25 february 2010

Mobile World Congress (MWC) was held during the economic crisis but hasn't therefore lost its traditional power of convocation. The 2010 edition, held last week in the Catalan capital, drew 49,000 visitors from 200 countries, with 1,300 exhibiting companies. These managers and professionals are the crème de la crème of a strategic global market in all respects, which is expecting the exit of the crisis to make a dramatic economic and technological re-launch. Especially in the field of mobile Internet.

Who does not innovate, loses. From this certainty it is not surprising that the real protagonists of this year have been two of the companies that bet most strongly on innovation: Apple and Google. The two United States actors, newcomers to the field of telecommunications, are adept at changing technology markets through innovation blows. In mobility, Apple and Google are focused on smart phones, mobile terminals that are less affected by the crisis, and the most promising segment. According to Gartner, while the mobile market stagnated in 2009, sales of smart-phones, 172.4 million units in 2009, grew by 23.8%.

And both Apple and Google are doing very well. According to Canalys consulting, new operating systems like Apple's iPhone, the Google Android and RIM Blackberry continue to gain market share, while the veteran systems, such as Symbian, the leader, and Windows Mobile, are losing it. Specifically, and according to a recent note from Gartner, in the field of smart-phones, "the two best results of 2009 correspond to Android and Apple." The iPhone's share grew 6.2 points, moving Windows Mobile from its third place, says Gartner.

Jobs, the great absentee

Apple has not officially come to Barcelona these days because out of principle it does not attend show fairs. But despite its absence, Steve Jobs was named "Person of the Year" of the mobile industry by the GSMA, the organizer of the WCM. And the iPhone ecosystem has inspired many of the things that have been in Barcelona this February, from touch terminals to mobile applications and AppStore, its delivery model, which has already got 140,000 applications with 3,000 million downloads.

This spectacular progression justifies unthinkable alliances in the past. The first day of the exhibition, the GSMA announced that a set of 24 major mobile operators (more LG, Samsung and Sony) had agreed to create an open platform similar to the AppStore. Of course it won't be easy to convince users that this it is more than a defensive response from a group of following companies against the thrust of the innovators; especially if, as analysts consider, some of their members are competing directly . But the pattern of the AppStore has created a fortune and large suppliers try to imitate it. This approach, according to Gartner, will this year provide 4.5 billion of downloads per year and will sell applications worth 6.2 billion dollars, it enhances the un-intermediating capacity of Internet and is poised to become a universal distribution system.

Google turned towards the WMC this year. Eric Schmidt's conference, its chief executive, caused further excitement and was followed by 35,000 Internet users through the Mobile World Live specific portal. Both the character and the product (Nexus One, its first mobile terminal for Android) dominated the attention of the 2,400 media from around the world who covered the conference. There are reasons for it. The search giant says it already sells more than 60,000 phones with Android and the number of handset manufacturers working in the open source system has been triggered. Especially among those who until now have been focused on the mobile system of Microsoft.

New operating systems

The success of new mobile platforms is triggering its multiplication, another of the market trends confirming mobility in Barcelona. Nokia and Intel have announced MeeGo, an open source platform intended for high-end mobiles. The Finnish company says it will maintain Symbian for the rest of their models. Korea's Samsung has also announced its own operating system. It is called Bada and the question is whether the massive economy of scale of the Asian giant (which already exceeds the leaders of the world's top technology providers) would result in an innovation able to open their way in this ultra-competitive market.

For many small mobile application developers more platforms don’t mean more business opportunities Is there a need for so many mobile platforms? For many small mobile application developers who have come to the fair (6,000 attendees declared themselves development professionals) they are more of a headache: more platforms mean initially more added work, and not necessarily more business opportunities. Anyway these will not lack: IDC warns that by 2013 the number of mobile workers will reach 1.2 billion worldwide.
But above all, are these new platforms feasible? Experience shows that not always. PalmOS failed and even Microsoft is moving back. Steve Ballmer explained in Barcelona that Windows Mobile 7, its future mobile operating system, is being rewritten from scratch. It is difficult to clear his disappointment with the departure of its operating system.

The point is that it is very difficult to make a place among the most innovative owner of the field (especially represented by iPhone and Blackberry), and the field of open source, which this year has hatched in mobility, as seen in the contest. "No other operating system can match the coverage of Linux now," Morgan Gillis, director of the LiMo Foundation, told Reuters. Unlike in desktop computing, in the mobile environment there is real competition and thus innovation, so that users end up winning again.

LOOSING THE MOBYLITY BATTLE At the MWC, troubling news have not lacked. For example, the limitations of the currently available bandwidth could impede the development of mobile Internet, as Cisco and other suppliers have warned; especially after the operators have postponed their investments in infrastructure in response to the crisis. While at the lectures of the Congress it has been talked about Dual Carrier HSPA technologies, networks and fourth generation LTE technology, the digital division continues to hinder the development of areas with lower population density.

Curiously, no one has echoed the sad role of the European mobile software in the MWC. But if it is true that the really important wars of the twenty-first century are the economic ones, the waging of major global suppliers to control wireless communications is a critical item. The European Union, as happens in the overall software market, is losing the war of mobility, an environment where it was very well positioned only a few years ago. The MWC, which organizers say will be held in Barcelona until 2012, was again the world's best showcase to prove it.


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