The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona easily lives up to its claim as a ‘world congress’. Every year this is the largest event by attendees and exhibitors in the mobile phone industry. The 2013 edition of the event moved to its massive new home at the Fira Gran Via – a newly built conference facility, a few kilometers to the west of the older location. The official figures from the organisers put the number of attendees at around 72,000.

Judging by the overwhelming visitor response and the permanent occupation of every lounge that I saw at the show those numbers seemed to be conservative. The attraction of the handheld is irresistible indeed!

Given the ‘kid in a candy store’ look on the faces of most attendees, it is clear that mobile device manufacturers still have the attention of consumers looking for new ways of staying connected, consuming media and eking out more productivity gains from their smartphones and tablets.

The show has become the de facto launch pad for major device announcements for handset and tablet manufacturers. Samsung launched its new Galaxy Note 8 which is an 8-inch tablet running on the Android Jelly Bean OS. Phablets seem to be the way to go as

LG, for example, will soon be launching its Optimus G Pro which is supposed to take the Samsung Galaxy Note II head-on with its massive 5.5-inch screen. Asus also displayed the new 7-inch Fonepad, 3G-enabled tablet which supports voice calling. Powered by the new Intel Atom Z2420, the Fonepad comes with an IPS screen to provide the user with wider viewing angles than regular tabs.

HTC launched a new flagship in the HTC One which features some advanced camera functions and content aggregation capabilities on its homescreen through HTC BlinkFeed. Zoe, a special mode in the HTC One’s camera app lets you capture a picture and also get an editable 3-second video to go along with it. At the time of writing there’s no other smartphone that offers this functionality. One that comes close is the Time Shift in BlackBerry 10 where you can jump a couple of frames forwards or backwards to adjust individual faces in a frame captured.

And Nokia, once the crown prince of the mobile handset industry, dusted itself off and joined the race again with a new range of low-priced handsets under its Asha series.

So if we cut through the clutter, what were the broad themes of this year’s MWC?

NFC communication

Adding some more colour on the themes, there was a big push on NFC (near field communications) this year. While popular opinion is that NFC is an answer still waiting for the question, the GSMA which is the main body that hosts the MWC didn’t seem to have any hesitation in trying to push NFC technology for everything at the show. In fact, they were having attendees use their NFC-capable devices for everything from gaining entry to the show daily instead of using their badges and their photo IDs. There were also NFC-enabled banner displays for attendees to tap into information about events and coupons for onsite restaurants were being delivered via NFC.

There has been a bit of a back and forth about whether this protocol will really take-off or not, especially with Apple still not recognizing its potential. But, this year’s MWC was truly NFC-enabled. While the most common application that is talked about for NFC is retail payments and money transfers, the jury is out on how this technology will take off without the support of Apple and the general inertia to replace the existing infrastructure. After all, the ‘if it ain’t broken don’t fix it’ mentality is firmly entrenched in technology.

Affordable devices

The one-upmanship on the amount of glass on the device continues unabated with device makers introducing phones with ever-increasing screen real estate. Taking a page from Samsung Note II, Huawei’s big claim at MWC 2013 was that they now have the phone with the largest screen size at 6.1 inches.

The Huawei Mate comes with a display the size of your dining table at least judging from where we started on smartphone screens.

Not to be outdone, Samsung has quietly slipped a phone app and 3G capabilities on its new note 8 ‘phablet’. All this may just start a new trend in clothing for pocket sizes for our pants. But jokes apart, the leading device manufacturers are also witnessing mobile saturation in the western world. The huge opportunity for mobile telephony and especially mobile broadband in the emerging markets is not lost on them.

They also realise that it is no longer enough to just make affordable feature phones for these markets and that there is pent up demand for smartphones and tablets that don’t dent the buyer’s bank balance significantly. Several manufacturers like Nokia in particular and the new device maker Yota from Russia are eyeing emerging markets. Nokia is leading the charge for affordable phones with its appropriately named Asha line up and even staffed its Asha section with our brethren. The Asha phones range in price from Rs 3,000- Rs 5,000 depending on the horsepower of the device and come with an entire line of productivity apps that can be obtained from Nokia’s own Asha store.

Mobile in the enterprise

The show had something in it for everybody. Exhibitors were addressing the concerns of consumers, businessmen and IT leaders all at the same time. Mobile has matured enough to no longer just address the fancy of the gadget geeks. While its influence in how business is conducted has been growing for a while, security concerns have previously hampered widespread adoption. Those concerns are being addressed directly with several leading vendors offering device and application management software. These tools range from being able to wipe devices clean if they are out of compliance to being able to locate devices or geo-fence them within a specific area to ensure that they don’t leave the premises. Companies at MWC talked about addressing the security needs of BYOD (bring your own devices) scenarios as well as corporate issued devices for field workers.

(The author is a mobility consultant.)

(This article was published on March 5, 2013)
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