Posted By, Stuart Dredge @ Mobile Entertainment
Is Mobile World Congress still relevant? The conference was discernibly quieter this year, and its legacy of being dominated by the ‘traditional’ heavyweights of the carrier and handset world leads some of the newer players in the industry to see it as all a bit Jurassic Park.
Even so, it remains a key event to take the pulse of the industry, not least because it’s where those so-called dinosaurs roar about their plans to stay relevant in the post. The clash between the old and new is what makes Mobile World Congress relevant now.
Anyway, with the dust from this year’s show settling, here’s our take on the 20 key trends of Mobile World Congress – with a skew towards mobile entertainment, as you might expect.
1. It’s all about the user experience
For pretty much every new handset that was shown off at Mobile World Congress, the first thing to be demoed was the user interface. Hardware features like GPS, Wi-Fi and how many megapixels the camera had were very much the last things to be trumpeted.
Nowadays, it’s all about how whizzy your UI is. It’s certainly a step forward, although arguably also a sign that with hardware features becoming increasingly commoditised, the front-end UI is the main way people can differentiate their smartphones.
Who chooses the interface is an interesting question though. Microsoft won’t let its handset partners muck about with the Windows Phone 7 Series UI, yet it’s now de rigeur to overlay your own interface on Android.
2. Apps take centre stage (sort of)
Well, as centre stage as they can be when residing in a hall at the top back corner of the MWC venue. The App Planet initiative was a qualified success. Okay, so Hall 7 was full of the same tech firms that were there last year – it’s less the apps hall, and more the enablers hall.
But the developer sessions by the likes of Vodafone, RIM and Google were rammed – giving away thousands of Nexus Ones didn’t hurt in the latter’s case.
The GSMA has work to do for next year to build on this success. Apps are driving sales of both smartphones and data tariffs, so the big handset and operator beasts of the GSM world need to find a way to get more apps on show next year.
3. Who’s havin’ APIs?
The model of downloading standalone apps accessed via a homescreen icon is here to stay, at least for the next few years. But an important trend for 2010 is apps getting more tightly integrated with smartphone operating systems and interfaces.
RIM coined the term ‘Super Apps’ to describe this: apps that tie into the BlackBerry OS in this way, pushing alerts to the inbox, entries to the calendar, and digging into the contacts. What’s more, these apps also work better with each other via open APIs. That’s a wider trend: look at Shazam on the iPhone and the way it points users off to Last.fm or Pandora.
Skype also talked about this idea of being baked into the operating system rather than just existing on the handset as an app – witness the way it’s part of the phone’s contacts, making it as easy to Skype-call or message your contacts as it is to voice-call or text them.
4. The GigaHertz wars
A 1GHz processor in a phone? It’s not such a surprise any more: these chipsets will soon become a standard for smartphones. Qualcomm’s Mark Frankel highlighted the potential for this to turn into an arms race, with handset makers competing to willy-wave in a contest to see who has the fastest processor.
Actually, trend number one in this list will hopefully nix that prospect. But it’s worth noting that the 1GHz-and-beyond processors are providing the grunt to power this new generation of user interfaces – not to mention the rich media apps and games that run on these handsets.
5. Google is Evil?
We’re paraphrasing other people’s views there, obviously. Anyone who saw the Q&A section of CEO Eric Schmidt’s keynote will have seen the suspicion, anger and paranoia directed at Google from some elements of the mobile industry. The more deeply Google gets into mobile, the more negativity it’s encountering.
It’s reminiscent of the music industry: whatever Google does, vocal elements are wondering out loud how it’s trying to screw them. The more mobile pies the company has its fingers in, the harder it will have to work to keep to that ‘Don’t Be Evil’ mantra.
Getting app developers to love Google more would be a start. Easing fragmentation of Android OS versions and improving the Android Market stall will hopefully be high on the company’s agenda this year.
6. Never mind the app stores
Handset firms and platform providers are talking up their UIs, but not talking enough about their stores. Specifically, about how they’re improving things like billing and discovery, to help people find apps and then impulse-buy them as quickly and easily as on Apple’s App Store.
There’s plenty of blather about context and relevance in the mobile industry at the moment, but both could be usefully applied more to the current and next generation of app stores.
Developers don’t judge a smartphone platform by the power of its handsets or the 3D wizardry of its menus. They judge it by how much money they can make on its store. Apple has set the bar high, but the strong message we got from developers this week is that they’d like to see more of its rivals making serious efforts to vault it.
7. Microsoft makes waves with Windows Phone
There was, it’s fair to say, a lack of really big news at MWC this year. Apple wasn’t there, obviously, but with Nokia and RIM focused on services and developers respectively, stop-the-press moments were relatively scarce.
For that reason, Windows Phone 7 Series was a genuine big reveal that held people’s attention throughout the show. It’s a big leap on from previous versions of Microsoft’s smartphone OS, with appreciable thought having been put into what a post-iPhone UI should look and feel like.
Games developers are particularly excited about the Xbox Live aspect, although Microsoft is keeping most of the details under its hat until next month’s MIX conference. One question is whether it’ll be much easier to port Xbox Live Arcade games to Windows Phone than it will to port, say, iPhone games. If developers are too tied into Microsoft’s own tools, it’ll be a bigger risk for the mobile crowd to support the platform.
8. Mobile advertising 2.0
Sorry, that’s a dreadful phrase. And if we’re being accurate, we’re probably on mobile advertising 7.6 by now. But there was some interesting chatter at MWC about how mobile ads will evolve this year and beyond.
AdMob’s Russell Buckley told ME about the success his company is having with video ads, while wondering out loud what role advertising will play in augmented reality applications in years to come. But the big talking point – although there weren’t any announcements on this score – was the plans of the various smartphone platform owners.
Apple owns Quattro Wireless. Google will soon own AdMob assuming the deal isn’t derailed. And don’t forget that Research In Motion is rolling out its own advertising service, albeit connecting developers up to existing ad networks rather than launching or buying its own. The strategies of these companies and others will define how important ad-supported models become in the mobile apps space.
Also bubbling under at MWC was the sense that virtual coupons and offers may be the first thing to really crack the mobile advertising model. Shazam was talking about its SARA system to let people tag TV ads and get money-off vouchers, Telmap told ME about integrating offers into navigation apps, while on the other side of the Atlantic, social location apps like Foursquare, MyTown and Gowalla are looking to sign more partnerships in this area.
9. Where has all the porn gone?
Remember the first time there was a content hall at Mobile World Congress – or 3GSM as it was known then? The stand imagery and demo videos were famously so filthy, a warning had to be posted on the front door for delegates with strong moral codes (or weak stomachs, given some of the material on show).
Adult content is barely evident at the show now. There was one stand in Hall 7, and Playboy sponsored the MEF party, but that was about it. This isn’t necessarily a sign that mobile porn is on its uppers – maybe the companies involved don’t need to exhibit at a telecoms conference.
It’s not the only sector to have ducked out of MWC though: you could count the number of mobile games companies with stands on one hand too, although there were plenty of games execs wandering around the Fira having meetings.
10. Mobile music takes a back-seat
The biggest music story at Mobile World Congress was Duran Duran’s GSMA awards gig, which shows that mobile music is getting considerably less hype than a few years ago.
However, there was stuff to chew over. Spotify’s presence emphasized mobile’s role in helping it sign up more paying subscribers, while Aspiro was showing off its new white-label music streaming and downloads service, which it says is responding to a demand from operators, particularly those who are also fixed-line ISPs.
The downloads versus streaming thing will be a big issue in 2010 though – tying into the question of whether mobile users want to own music, or simply access it. The offline cacheing feature first introduced by Spotify is fast becoming an essential for streaming music apps, tipping the balance towards access. Yet partnerships like the one between 7Digital and Last.fm on BlackBerry hint at more links between the two worlds – people buying the songs that they’ve been streaming on their phones.
Incidentally, ME had a chat with Nick Rhodes out of Duran Duran at the MEF party, and it was interesting to hear him say that the band is keen to do something mobile, but focused around connecting with fans rather than flogging them music. It’s a sign of a change in how artists (and the rest of the music industry) see mobile.
What else was making our brains tick in Barcelona this year?
Late last week, we published the first half of our roundup of the key trends and issues we noticed during Mobile World Congress, based on interviews, chats and gossip at the show.
You can read the first ten trends by clicking here. Now it’s time for the second half. Read on:
11. Mobile TV is (finally) getting sexier
The app that most impressed ME at Mobile World Congress was Fuugo, a new mobile TV service being touted by Finnish firm Axel Technologies.
It aggregates shows from traditional broadcasters, mobile channels and UGC websites, serving them up in a slick touchscreen interface. It throws in social aspects and TiVo-style recommendation to boot.
We also saw a beta demo of the latest version of Aspiro’s white-label mobile TV service, which has been redesigned for the new breed of touchscreen smartphones. Meanwhile, Qualcomm’s FLO TV has come on in leaps and bounds too.
The trend: mobile TV is finally starting to deliver an experience worth watching. The ability to change channels by swiping – and the fact that it switches quickly – is a world away from the clunky interfaces of yore.
Plus, mobile TV is moving away from the pure linear model that forced you to watch whatever was being shown at that time on your chosen channel, towards more on-demand and PVR aspects. All good.
12. App discovery via your social graph
Another interesting feature in Fuugo is the ability to get recommendations of shows direct from your Twitter contacts within the app.
Meanwhile, ITHR Consulting’s myphonehas was a white-label app store platform with social recommendations at its heart – imagine the App Store, with an extra box for apps that your friends have just bought.
These companies aren’t the first to think about social recommendations, of course. Nokia talked about the idea when it first launched its Ovi Store, although the social aspect hasn’t really made itself known so far.
Meanwhile, iPhone apps like Chomp and Chorus are looking to provide real-time recommendations from their wider communities, while also letting users check out ratings from their Twitter and Facebook friends who also have the apps.
At a time when app discovery is a big issue, using the social graph is an interesting approach. However, it’s more powerful when related to active recommendations – apps that your friends like – rather than just what they’ve been buying.
13. Google and Apple’s M&A-fuelled battle
This won’t be news to anyone: Google and Apple are increasingly stepping on one another’s turf, and both have big cash reserves to buy any startup they think will help them step more decisively. AdMob and Lala are two companies who’ve benefitted recently, but most observers expect there to be more to come.
With that in mind, Mobile World Congress offered some insights into how companies might position themselves as a suitable acquisition.
Take Shazam, which has just moved into advertising with its SARA platform, which lets people tag TV ads as well as music. Allied to its core business – with 50 million users and growing fast – and the company could clearly appeal to either Apple or Google in the months ahead.
Something else we picked up at MWC was chatter over Apple’s ambitions on the social side of mobile entertainment. Currently, there’s no proprietary social network for iPhone, iPod touch and (soon) iPad – while there’s a multitude of Xbox Live-esque community platforms for iPhone gaming.
However, many observers are wondering when – rather than if – Apple will change this, launching its own social platform for apps to tie into.
14. Nokia’s Big Statement
When Nokia first confirmed that it wouldn’t be booking a stand at Mobile World Congress, it seemed like bad news for the show. One of the biggest players in the industry was making no secret of its view that MWC was overpriced, and that its money could be best spent outside the Fira.
Last week, there was no shortage of commentators suggesting that the decision was actually bad news for Nokia, allowing its rivals to steal the limelight – something helped by the lack of any new Nokia handsets announced at its press conference on Monday. Had the move backfired?
In short, it’s too early to say. If you’re not launching a bunch of new phones, splashing a million Euros on a flashy stand is probably less effective than booking an external space giving you total control over branding – not to mention guaranteed Wi-Fi and good grub.
You could also argue that it’s more evidence of Nokia’s desire to be more Apple-like in the control it exerts over its big announcements.
And those announcements? The MeeGo news was intriguing, but also caused developer head-scratching after months of being encouraged to make apps for Maemo.
Meanwhile, the stats given out for Nokia’s entertainment services were as revealing for what they left out – no user or download numbers for music for example – as for what they trumpeted.
15. Three screens plus the cloud
We think this is a phrase coined by Microsoft, to describe services that are available on PC, TV and mobile and hosted in the cloud – but it applies beyond that company’s products to a number of entertainment services nowadays.
Xbox Live is one, of course, as it’s finally due to make its way to mobile as a key part of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 Series platform. However, you can add Spotify to the list too – it’s already on PC and mobile, and has ambitions to be accessible through TVs too.
Last week’s announcement of the BBC’s plans for mobile apps also gains it entry to the TSPTC cabal (as nobody’s calling it).
This might need to be expanded to four screens once tablets take off, mind. But it ties into something that Norwest Venture Partners’ Tim Chang told us last week – that in not-too-long, pureplay mobile games firms will be history, as companies increasingly look to release games on Facebook, as PC downloads, on console digital stores and anywhere else with a digital distribution platform.
It’s not that games or services are the same on all these different platforms – far from it. But many companies are focusing on digital entertainment nowadays, rather than just mobile entertainment.
16. The speedy decline of Java gaming
The cat is finally out of the bag: sales of games for feature phones on operator portals are slumping, as many of their keenest games customers upgrade to app-store-toting smartphones.
The trend has been talked about for months, and usually denied by the operators and top-tier publishers, who said their J2ME revenues were holding up.
The latter aren’t saying that any more. Gameloft told ME last week that its Java revenues had suffered in Q4, while Glu admitted the same in its recent Q4 financials – with the latter saying the decline had been faster than it expected.
It’s a transition phase, in other words, and games publishers that have struggled to ramp up quickly enough on iPhone – while getting ready for other smartphones – are feeling the pinch.
That’s the reason Glu is shifting its studios towards smartphone development, as well as the thinking behind I-play’s recent strategic shift away from the carrier portals.
It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t a flee away from the operators themselves, necessarily. After all, this year plenty of them will be launching their own app stores supporting Android and other smartphones…
17. Social media aggregation
The days when operators tried to do everything themselves are gone – which is why none of them are making noises about launching their own equivalents of Facebook or Twitter.
Those two services in particular have become standards, to the extent that many new handsets last week showcased their integration with both as a key feature.
However, one thing both operators and handset makers are doing is trying to get in the middle of their customers and social media, by offering aggregation-type services. Vodafone 360 and MOTOBLUR were joined last week by Samsung’s Social Hub software, which is a key part of its new bada platform.
The message: customers have a plethora of social media services, and need someone to help make sense of them. Mobile-savvy users might not – they’ll likely be using Facebook’s official app and a powerful Twitter client. But for mainstream mobile users, these services may be increasingly handy – especially when they sit on the homepage of the handset.
Our only question: what happens when two such services clash? Could we ever see a MOTOBLUR handset sold by Vodafone – and if so, will users get to choose which aggregation service to use?
18. Going local
The apps thing may be global, but there was lots of talk about local apps last week. By which we mean localisation – apps being translated into various languages to boost their popularity around the world – but also about smartphone platform-owners talent-scouting beyond the West Coast of the US for developers.
It was there in RIM’s plans to hold BlackBerry roadshows around the world, while leaving behind local community groups after the event.
And it was there in Nokia talking about the importance of local music to Comes With Music in its most successful markets. It was even there in Glu Mobile’s announcement halfway through the week that its Call of Duty game has been fully localised into Arabic for Middle Eastern markets.
It’s a reminder that locally developer apps can build a big audience even against well-established international opposition. We write a lot about Foursquare, Gowalla and MyTown in the social location field, for example, but don’t bet against local competition around the world if it comes up with something more culturally relevant.
19. Same app, different platforms?
Our interest in this trend was tickled by a comment from Shazam’s Andrew Fisher last week, when he said that “Mobile is still fixated in differentiation – every handset maker wants to know how we can make a different flavour of Shazam for them”.
iPhone is the lead platform for a lot of mobile developers nowadays, even if Android, BlackBerry and Nokia/Symbian have their own communities too.
So it’s interesting to see the question of whether an app should be the same across different smartphones, or incorporate unique features depending on their capabilities. An example might be Spotify running in the background on Android, but not on iPhone.
To some extent, Apple’s rivals are having to swallow their pride and stress to developers how easy it is to port iPhone apps to, say, Windows Mobile – rather than demanding exclusive features.
However, RIM’s coining of the term ‘Super Apps’ to describe apps that dig deep into its OS shows that not all are settling for the me-too approach.
20. Feature phones are getting smarter
Apps are a smartphone thing, right? Except maybe they’re not in the medium-term, thanks to the launch of app stores that support more affordable feature phones, and the smartening up of feature phones themselves with widgets and social media integration.
HTC’s Smart was announced last week with O2, and uses Qualcomm’s Brew Mobile platform to provide features that would normally be expected from more expensive handsets.
The potential of Nokia’s Ovi Store is as much about India, China and Russia as the big Western markets where it’s had so much criticism.
Novarra’s oneweb service – also released last week – is also about opening up a much wider base of handsets to apps and widgets. And Samsung’s bada platform was supposed to be all about bringing smartphone-esque features to the mid-tier, although puzzingly the company’s first bada phone, the Wave, is a high-end smartphone.
Anyway, the point is that apps aren’t just a high-end thing any more, and while there’s merit to the arguments that everyone will have a smartphone in a few years’ time, for the time being, there’s an opportunity for any mobile entertainment firm targeting more affordable handsets.
Which, yes, we realise somewhat contradicts Trend 16 in this list…