Powerful Smartphones with fast mobile connections to great web services

Smartphones at Mobile World Congress

, posted: 22-Feb-2010 17:06

The rather pompously titled “Mobile World Congress” (MWC) has come and gone for another year. This event is the successor to the previous GSM Conferences when the European GSM standard was fiercely battling the North American developed CDMA for global mobile supremacy. GSM effectively triumphed in terms of global user numbers although ironically it uses (Wideband) CDMA as the wireless link in its 3G version. 

Two key reasons that GSM won out were the users’ identity actually being on the SIM card rather than the handset meaning no hassles changing from one phone to another, and the amount of standardisation (GSM is grafted neatly onto ISDN) to aid interoperability which was born out of a desire to have harmonious communications across Europe. Occasionally design by committee produces good results and GSM turned out to scale very well.

As an aside, a Lucent engineer told me in 2003 that the U.S. mobile operators instructed their CDMA infrastructure providers to prevent roaming and interoperability between U.S networks so as to stop customers moving from one network to the other. 

While the Europeans were developing the Groupe Special Mobile (GSM) standard in the 80’s (later Anglecised to ‘Global System for Mobile’) the Americans were busy with the PC revolution and the building blocks for the internet. The (fixed) internet and mobile voice both exploded from the late 90’s.

However these two worlds were on a collision course with 3G providing usable mobile access to the internet from about 2004. In Europe this mobile internet experience was very much controlled by the mobile operators (walled gardens) who could dictate design features to the traditional handset vendors (Nokia, Ericsson). The U.S. mobile operators were equally restrictive but there was also a drive for more openness coming from the U.S. PC & internet tech industries with Palm, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile (on HP, Palm & HTC devices) and BlackBerry from Canada. At first these were focussed on business users who wanted access to their information without operator restrictions which operators let them have while they focussed on their Consumer customers. This meant the open mobile internet model was now in place but the uptake of mobile internet usage was held back by very high and uncertain mobile data pricing and devices that were difficult to configure. BlackBerry’s success came from price certainty ($x for your monthly email) and relatively easy set-up, especially for Corporates.

Our expectation of how easy it could be to use a powerful Smartphone was revolutionised in mid-2007 with the launch of the 2G (EDGE) Apple iPhone, again from one of the PC industry pioneers. The iPhone provided a highly usable mobile browser and Apple negotiated reasonable mobile data plans with unfettered mobile internet use - oh and it was an iPod to boot! Since then the Application Store, cloud services and the GPS/accelerometer/compass hardware features have been added to create the ‘table stakes’ of what a mobile Smartphone platform should now provide. And at the same time the networks have gotten so much better with HSPA now delivering wireless broadband performance.

Which brings us back to MWC 2010 held in Barcelona, one of the major European cities. Because it looks like the only ones who can match Apple are the other U.S. computer industry giants. Yes 2010 at MWC was the year of the American mobile internet and the realisation that the computer/internet guys have also become the mobile guys. They are close to owning outright the Smartphone market and over the next few years we will see how cheap they can make them to drive up user numbers and increase usage of their cloud services.

Microsoft announced Windows Phone 7 Series. Despite the mouthful this is a major step forwards and real break with the previous Windows Mobile 6.5. It was generally very well received even though we won’t see devices in market until ‘holiday’ season 2010 - which I think means somewhere in Oct or Nov. Of course Apple and Android will have gone through further upgrades by then. The ecosystem around Windows Phone looks to be very rich including; Zune, Xbox, Windows Live & My Phone, Facebook and Bing search and maps. While a range of OEM’s were listed as partners there were no specific device announcements. Development for WinPho7 will be a major topic at the Microsoft developer conference ‘MIX’ in Las Vegas in March.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt presented the official MWC keynote address saying that mobile was the #1 focus for Google now. While lacking any big product announcements he revealed that 60,000 Android handsets were now being sold daily around the world which equates to some 20million in a year - a very impressive number. He also talked about features like voice recognition with real-time translation, and photo translation of text in street signs. These types of services play to Google’s strength in massive cloud based processing in a way that maybe no-one else can match. And Android support for Flash was demonstrated in the keynote by Eric Tseng who is really getting around these days as the public face of Android. 

On the Android device side there were a number of new Android devices announced with the most exciting coming from HTC including the HTC Legend made from a single block of aluminium. Also of note are vendors like Huawei who might drive Android device prices to new levels that could really stimulate Smartphone adoption amongst new market segments. It seems that the main challenge for Google is to not be a victim of their own success - there are so many new handsets coming out so quickly with the HTC Desire looking like it has already trumped the Google Nexus One - also made by HTC - which was only released on Jan 5th. Perhaps it’s a good problem to have but reports are that a number of customers are annoyed that they have an obsolete phone so soon after its release.

Apple wasn‘t even there physically but of course their impact was everywhere. Apparently Apple Execs do attend MWC to hold backroom meetings with prospective new iPhone mobile operators. There will almost certainly be the next round of OS and hardware announcements in Jun/Jul.

Nokia is the last one standing from the old GSM world maintaining their own OS but they chose not to even be present at the official MWC instead holding their own alternative conference nearby - although I saw very little coverage of it on the web. Along with Intel they announced that they would merge their two Linux mobile initiatives - MobLin and Maemo - into MeeGo! Good lord, what this means and how it fits into the open sourcing of Symbian and a cohesive mobile OS strategy is anyone’s guess. And not a single new device was announced.

So the Europeans won the Telco mobile standards battle with GSM prevailing over CDMA. But as MWC 2010 showed the Americans have rendered that irrelevant by delivering a great user experience through quality of the handset software and the richness of the internet services it connects to - and the business case is in more than just hardware margins. The network in the middle just needs to be effective, scalable and interoperable, so thanks for that GSM and thanks for handing over the stage at your Mobile World Congress.  

BlackBerry was there but made little noise. One announcement regarding some new BES version, and another that amounted to ‘hold tight, we know our web browser sucks but trust us we are working on a decent one’. I just can’t see how they are going to reach into Consumer markets in a meaningful way.

Palm made no announcements that I saw.

Samsung announced their own OS and SDK etc. to add to the others they support; Android, Linux Mobile, Windows Mobile. The recently dropped Symbian - glad they decided to rationalise!
Sony Ericsson announced a new Symbian and Android device and they also support WinMo. Then made the incredible admission that they had declined Google's request to build the Nexus One. Why would you turn that down? And then why would you admit it?

Other related posts:
Brands producing apps only for iPhone
Steve Jobs: Rock Star!
The features Kiwis miss out on with Android 1.6

Comment by Dayout, on 23-Feb-2010 15:59

I really appreciated this succinct summary of where the smart phone world has got to. It put in context a number of issues which I did not understand fully. The demise of the walled gardens is to be applauded.

Comment by Linuxluver, on 24-Feb-2010 20:07

New Zealand has always suffered from "Window-itis" on PCs with perhaps the highest usage rate of Windows of any country on Earth. Mobile phones here are similarly kitted out. Most are Symbian or WinMo...and the lone Android phone (HTC Magic 32B from Vodafone) has just been withdrawn from the market. 
Telecom haven't got a single phone in their entire inventory I find remotely interesting. 

If TradeMe is any indication, the low-end and high-end both over rich pickings for parallel importers. 

Author's note by timmyh, on 26-Feb-2010 07:54

I agree that Telecom's handset range is very odd. Why they still don't have the iPhone officially on sale remains the biggest mystery in NZ tech today. And especially odd as Telecom's network is perfect for the iPhone frequencies compared to Vodafone. The U.S. is the only other country I know of that has only one iPhone provider and that is due to some unique conditions.
Telecom will have lost a large number of customers to Vodafone just for the iPhone - this means losing their total monthly spend.
And then to have no Android on top of that is simply incomprehensible.

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timmyh's profile

Tim Hayward
New Zealand

Former 'Head of Smartphones' at Vodafone New Zealand Marketing from 2006 to 2009. Looked after all key Smartphone platforms, mobile pricing plans, marketing and sales GTM activity.

Now working on mobile application development consulting and delivery especially on projects requiring support across multiple mobile platforms (iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian). Please contact me if you have any projects you'd like us to consult or quote on: tim@hayward.net.nz