The largest mobile technology event on the planet, the Mobile World Congress, opened in Barcelona today with a promise of unveiling a rebirth of the industry. From new handsets and new forms of broadband access to new business models and new ways of making money with a cellular phone, it is a big promise, and Gadget is there to observe the newest visions of the future. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK sets the scene from the exhibition floor.
The next big thing in mobile technology is the Femtocell. No, wait, the next big thing is downloadable music. Oh, scratch that… the next big thing is SMS application-to-peer. Or is it mobile instant messaging? All-IP networks? Mobile transactions? Ubiquitous mobile services?
The reality is that no one knows quite what the next big thing will be, but everyone at the Mobile World Congress starting today in Barcelona wants to stake a claim to it, have a share in it, or at least be part of the bandwagon when it rolls into town.
Barcelona, scene of the Mobile World Congress
There are certainly Next Big Themes at Mobile World, if not necessarily Next Big Things. The central thrust, now that more than 2-billion human beings use cellphones, is how to get more out of the cellphone and out of the cellphone user. The first will allow the user to have an ever improved – or ever more intensive – experience on the phone; the latter will ensure that the networks and manufacturers can make more money out of those users.
One thing that is certain is that, for the pervasive mobile user base to be fully leveraged, the much-hyped term, “convergence”, must become reality. It doesn’t mean that all things should be done on one device or that all devices must do the same things, but rather that technologies not be at war with each other.
“We need to be agnostic about the precise technologies being used,” said Craig Ehrlich, chairman of GSMA (GSM Association), which organises the Mobile World Congress.`For some operators, for example, WiMAX may be a threat. For others, it may be an opportunity. Irrespective of these individual considerations, the GSMA needs to embrace the entire constituency.”
Delegates arrive at the Fira de Barcelona for Mobile World Congress 2008
That vision brings closer a major opportunity: the concept of ubiquitous mobile services, which promises to use mobile communications as a ubiquitous force in society, or, from a network’s point of view, a platform on which to build numerous new services..
For example, the Femtocell, essentially a cellular base station for the home or office, offers to improve the in-building experience of using phones and especially mobile broadband, but is also a way for the networks to roll out more efficient broadband networks. That efficiency is essential if one of the other big themes at Mobile World – new business models for mobile content – becomes a broader reality.
Omnifone, a leader in mobile downloadable music services, was due to make a major announcement on a new subscription service with no limits on amount of music subscribers could download. That service can’t work on a network that does not have the capacity or the efficiency required by digitally downloaded or streamed services.
Same with Mobile TV: a big theme this year, but still suffering under a bad press due to its non-delivery in the last year or two. Part of the reason for that was inadequate mobile infrastructure, or at least inadequate tools for managing existing infrastructure to the level required for mobile broadcast.
Other big themes include the social and economic role and impact of mobile communications, the commercialisation of IP-based (Internet-type) services, and the impending arrivals of 4G technologies.
Some of these visions and technologies are a reality, or about to become so. Other visions and technologies remain conceptual, but simply the discussions around them create an impetus that is feeding dramatic change in the way the future is viewed. The wider the range of visions, concepts, prototypes and new products, the faster our understanding of the future changes.
But when the future is changing so fast, of course, yesterday’s visions of tomorrow already look quaint..