As the world’s technology companies brace for the toughest year since the dot-com crash, there is one bright spot on the horizon – mobile phones.
The release of Apple’s 3G iPhone had sparked a wave of product innovation in the sector, from handsets and operating systems through to applications and network developments.
To discover the latest in mobile trends, SmartCompany travelled to the Mobile World Congress (MWC) show in Barcelona held late last month. This is the world’s largest exhibition of all things mobile, from the latest in handsets to the network infrastructure and services that make them useful.
Attendance was strong despite the economic downturn, and there was still plenty of optimism, especially with global mobile subscriptions now exceeding four billion – not bad for an industry that is barely 30 years old.
Here are some of the top trends and technologies that were on display at this year’s show.
Advertising in your hands: Mobile content services was a big talking point this year, and so too were ways that mobile service providers might be able to make more money from them.
Technology makers have been positioning themselves as intermediaries, working with both content providers and advertisers to smooth out the wrinkles in emerging mobile advertising models. People have declared each of the last five years as being the year of breakthrough for mobile advertising. Perhaps this year finally will be.
Faster, faster, faster: You couldn’t miss outgoing Telstra boss Sol Trujillo as he moved from stage to stage to spruik his company’s world-first upgrade of its wireless network to provide broadband speeds up to 21 megabits per second (Mbps).
The upgrade of the Ericsson-built network is delivering mobile broadband to much of Australia, although Trujillo himself concedes that the vagaries of cellular technology mean few consumers will get close to full speed, but he adds: “We are looking at two to three times as our average experience is on a loaded network.”
4G networks on the horizon: One of the biggest announcements of the show was that US carrier Verizon would begin deploying a network based on a technology called long term evolution (LTE) – or what is likely to become known as 4G wireless.
Working with hardware partners Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson, Verizon aims to have a live network deployed this year, ready for commercial users in 2010. LTE has been touted as the logical successor to today’s 3G networks, and promises peak data download speeds beyond 300Mbps.
Touch me: It only took Apple one attempt to revolutionise the handset market, rewriting the rules with a device with a large screen and touch interface. Since the release of the iconic iPhone in June 2007, competitors have been scrambling to bring their own iPhone clones on to the market, and now appear set to take the fight to Apple.
The latest is the Palm Pre (from the makers of the Palm Pilot) which sports a similar touch interface, with a small slide-out keyboard, and is one of the first phones to utilise wireless charging via electromagnetic induction.
Sony Ericsson also gave a glimpse of a device it has code-named iDou (pronounced i-do), another touch-based device similar to the iPhone but sporting a superior camera and multimedia capabilities.
WiMAX loses ground: One of the victims of the global economic crisis appears to be WiMAX, a wireless broadband technology capable of delivering speeds up to 72Mbps that has been touted primarily by chipmaker Intel as an alternative to LTE.
But with carriers deferring investments in new high-speed networks, WiMAX has lost some if its momentum, as its initial advantage of being ready for introduction two years ahead of LTE is no longer so appealing. It has not helped that supporters such as Alcatel-Lucent and Nortel have respectively scaled back and walked away from their investments in the technology, although Intel is remaining true to the cause.
The consensus of the show was that WiMAX will have its place, primarily as a technology for fixed wireless broadband, while LTE becomes the successor to 3G networks.
Applications for all: On 10 July 2008, Apple further rewrote the rules of mobile computing, opening its App Store and allowing iPhone owners to download free and paid software applications for their handsets. By January this year 500 million applications had been downloaded, and in February more than 20,000 applications were available.
Not surprisingly, other handset makers are getting in on the action, including Nokia, Palm and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion, while Microsoft and Android (created by Google) have both announced markets for their own mobile phone software operating systems.
Projecting a bright future: One of the biggest problems with mobile phones is that the larger you make the screen, the larger you have to make the handset. Hence various companies (including Australia’s Digislide) have been working to make projectors small enough to incorporate into a phone.
Texas Instruments was proudly showing off a new Samsung phone with a built-in projector that can display an A4 image in ambient light conditions, turning the handset into a shared viewing device.
Mobiles that can read: There is no doubt that mobile handsets are getting smarter, such as Nokia’s N71 device which has a built-in business card scanner.
Russian software maker ABBYY is taking that capability further, creating a software application that can translate different languages in the phone itself. Can’t read a Russian menu? Take a photo of the words or phrase and the ABBYY software will convert it back into English.
Mobile goes further: While the global economic crisis cast a shadow over the show, it only fuelled the desire of suppliers to get their technology into emerging markets in Africa, South America and south-east Asia.
Ericsson chief executive Carl-Henric Svanberg spoke extensively on the topic at his press conference, extolling not just the benefits to impoverished communities that comes through deploying mobile networks, but also the economic opportunities that flow to companies like his by helping to develop them.
“If we left this world with a digital divide with billions of people on the outside, that would not be fine for any of us,” Svanberg said. Ericsson is also putting a lot of effort into powering its networks using renewable energy such as wind and solar – an important consideration in markets where electricity supply cannot be guaranteed.
One charger to rule them all: Green was a key theme this year, and the hosting body, the GSM Association, used MWC to announce that 17 of its partner companies are working to create a common format for mobile phone chargers by 2012. The goal is reduce waste by not forcing consumers to throw away their old charger when they change handsets.
The group, which includes Nokia, Motorola, Sony Ericsson and Samsung (but not Apple) has already settled on the micro-USB format commonly used to connect phones to other devices today.