Res Locus has just returned from the annual get-together of the World’s Mobile Telecoms Industry in Barcelona – about 50,000 suited-and-booted businessmen and women all discussing the major issues in the mobile industry and/or demonstrating their wares to prospective customers.
I spent a lot of time in one of the exhibition eight-or-so exhibition halls which was called “Apps Planet”. This was where the new world of mobile applications were being showcased, exhibited and discussed along with several mini-conferences trying to attract the brightest and best of the applications development community.
At the start of the week 25 mobile operators announced a new alliance – the Wholesale Application Community (WAC) – to try to reverse the trend of the new threats from Apple, Google and others (who are continuing to profit from the growth of applications on smartphones far more than the mobile operators). Most of those I spoke to thought this idea was very ambitious and the successful execution of it very challenging. Time will tell whether the industry can collaborate on such a wide front. Then again, the original GSM standard (from where the conference originated) was one such collaboration.
The most notable absentees were Nokia (from the Congress) and Apple (from the Apps Planet). Odd, you might think, when these two players are so dominant in their respective parts of the market. Yet the Congress is VERY expensive and not necessarily the best way to increase your business if you already own a large part of a segment of it. I gather Nokia had a pavillion off the main campus, but I did not go there. Many of the other top-names of the industry – such as Ericsson and Huawei had invitation-only pavilions which created an atmosphere of minor competitive posturing amongst the larger playing field of Olympian collaboration.
Attendees at Google’s Android sessions (of which I was one) came to realise that the Apples block-buster innovation of the i-Phone (now nearly 3 years old) now has a serious contender. Google was so keen on expanding its developer community that it crowded several hundred people into a large auditorium on the hour, every hour, and gave away a free Nexus One to all attendees. Thank you, Google! Yet I came away still preferring my i-Phone. Then again I simply love Apple.
On the Thursday, the Wireless Industry Partnership (a ten-year-old community of mobile phone developers) held a series of “Jam” sessions. This was a very different atmosphere from the military-style Google machine from the previous day. Here the room was broken into hot-houses of developers creating apps in three hours, and small groups who discussed the pros and cons of development in the new world.
The main conclusion for me is that the application designers and developers are now the scarce commodity being courted by ALL the blocks of industry (including the handset providers such as Samsung, the network equipment providers such as Ericsson, the traditional operators such as Vodafone and the internet stars such as Google). Who will win in this new segment of the industry is not yet clear. Many are backing Google – with Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google giving a key-note at the Congress on the Tuesday – where he made Google’s intentions absolutely clear to move mobile to become central to Google’s strategy.
There is no doubt that the substantial investments in 3G networks are now beginning to be flooded as the emerging smartphones give a customer experience which is way beyond the older data services based on SMS, WAP or early mobile internet browsing. Yet most of the so-called data-Tsunami is by dongle users who are using PCs on the move in the way they use them.
The changes are very exciting in one respect – but also a significant challenge to the mobile industry as the pipes become clogged by data that is far less valuable to the operators than traditional voice or SMS traffic. The challenge was being discussed in many corners….with many innovative solutions to tackle it…. Yet a text from one of my friends that lives in Singapore took 6 hours to get to me – so I did not end up meeting with him! And roaming with O2 (without any roaming package) was going to cost me £6 per MB – simply because I was in Spain and not my home country of the UK. However, when I was in my hotel or near a public WiFi network I could connect my i-Phone for free!
The Nexus One may well be as much of a game-changer for the mobile industry as the i-Phone has been to the mobile user experience. The obvious way to get better performance and faster data rates is to off-load data traffic onto “other” networks – primarily WiFi. I learnt that 80% of mobile calls and data sessions are made from our homes and offices. Even more reason to find sensible ways to offload traffic for the 20% that are on the move. This functionality is all built-into the i-Phone and Nexus One. The only difference is that Apple worked with AT&T and other operators to include them in some of the spoils. The words of Eric Schmidt to reassure the industry did not align to most people’s thinking of the reality of Google’s ambitions. More on this at: http://bit.ly/ckzBcg
So I came away with the sense that the traditional mobile operator business model which was originally designed by the GSM Association 25+ years ago is now in its last few years of its gravy-train existence. The new investments required to create the worldwide super-fast mobile data networks of the future (based on something called LTE or long-term-evolution) will finally force the industry to consolidate into one or two networks per country.
If there were two emotions that I came away with, they were relief and hope. Relief that I was going home (I could only manage 3 days at that intensity!) And hope that the new(ish) world of mobile applications will continue to give us more and more useful things which are way-beyond a the functionality of a simple mobile phone of 10 years ago. The Battle of the Planet of the Apps is how one friend described it to me. The battle lines are drawn and there will be quite a few battles fought before the war is won.
Yet, overall, we will look back ten years from now and find, I expect, that local communities will benefit significantly from the mobile broadband infrastructures that are now being planned – whether they are WiFi, 3G, LTE or something else. This is a hopeful picture as the industry rises to the challenge to cope with the ever-increasing demand for personal data communications, video conferencing, video-over-the-internet, m-health, intelligent transport system and remote monitoring to make ourselves more green.