Mobile World Congress 2013 was notable for its workmanlike flavor. What didn't happen there was also conspicuous.
Mobile World Congress has always been a special tradeshow because of its ability to attract the entire mobile computing and communications ecosystem: handset and operating system makers, application developers, carriers and infrastructure vendors.
If claustrophobia is a measure of the 2013 Barcelona event's success, it's at the top of its game. Ericsson and Huawei carved pavilions the size of small villages and employed multiple layers of imposing body guards. Samsung, HTC and Nokia had enormous booths as well, but they were mere shopping malls compared to the Huawei village. HTC created a theater with all of the requisite ambience: black backdrops with a dark green glow for maximum drama, all to bathe the acrobats who stopped conference attendees in their tracks. Samsung set up a mini-booth at the top of the escalators within the subway stop for the event venue.
But that was the extent of the fanfare. The show took on a workmanlike flavor in 2013, a reflection of where the mobile industry is in its young life. The major themes included carrier-based Software-Defined Networking, Small Cells, H.265 and network functions virtualization (NFV).
For those running enterprise data centers, much of this will sound familiar. NFV, for instance, involves using commodity servers to run various network functions in software, virtualizing network and control plane services based on capacity and necessity. In some ways, it sounds like software-defined networking, but the authors of the white paper that defines NFV (essentially the major global carriers) are careful to say that "network functions can be virtualized and deployed without an SDN being required and vice-versa."
In other words, the mobile industry is at a point where the carriers must find new ways to boost their network capacity, deliver content faster and with higher quality, and do all of that more cost-effectively. It isn't a new story, but it's a much more urgent one given the proliferation of mobile devices and the fact that mobile traffic is suddenly overtaking all other network traffic.
Sure, shiny new devices were still on hand. Huawei and Alcatel Lucent each introduced beautiful new ultra-thin smartphones. Lenovo had some too, but they're aimed at users outside the U.S. for now. Samsung introduced the Note 8, a smaller tablet with pen, and optimized for a limited form of multi-tasking. Hewlett-Packard announced an uninspiring seven-inch Android tablet, but the price -- $169 -- raised eyebrows.
Mobile World Congress also was notable for what didn't happen. Years ago, Google arrived with its CEO at the time, Eric Schmidt, and a booth that brought out the kid in every attendee: troughs of candy, a smoothie bar, bean bag chairs and a twisting slide right in the middle. This year, there was no Google, unless you count the press gathering Andy Rubin held on February 26. Or Google's annual Android party, with Florence and the Machine and Tinie Tempah providing the entertainment.
It was three years ago when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer appeared in a densely packed hotel ballroom to announced Windows Phone, a major surprise at the time. Last year, Microsoft showcased dozens of Windows 8 hardware devices. But this year, Microsoft merely threw a small reception.
Nokia CEO Stephen Elop took to an early morning press conference on February 25 to announce a handful of entry-level and midrange mobile devices, but it was hardly worth the ballyhoo. It's the typical OEM-Microsoft story: Build a high-end device (the Lumia 920) and then start to push those high-end features down into devices that are more affordable, to stir mass consumption. Then continue to build new devices at the high end, labeling them as either "iconic" or "flagship," an irksome habit among Nokia, Samsung and HTC, made more annoying by their decision to unveil them at independent launch events.
HTC unveiled its next big thing, the HTC One, a week before MWC at its own event. Samsung is holding an event on March 14, and all indications are that its much-awaited Galaxy S IV will see the light of day.
During Nokia's show-within-a-show announcement for the Nokia 105, 301, Lumia 520 and Lumia 720, the company -- in homage to Apple -- trotted out its designer, as if the mobile phones needed an unveiling of fashion industry proportions. True to form, Nokia's designer Marko Ahtisaari appeared, his head shaven, wearing an all-black suit, almost a parody of a designer, calling to mind Mike Myers' Dieter character of SNL fame.
These designer showcases have become an embarrassing ritual. I parodied HTC and Nokia last year, and this year not much changed. The Nokia phones, the gathered were told, are "pure." They are also "human" and "warm," terms that might be appropriate if the phone gave end-of-day foot massages. "It feels good in the hand," Marko Ahtisaari said in a trademark phrase that always calls to mind the steering wheel of a Porsche, not a smartphone.
Nokia has hung its hat on colorful phones (those from its rivals typically come in either white, black or metallic silver) and just the "beautiful essentials." As if for further clarity, Ahtisaari added: "What we leave out is as important as what we put in."
Nokia's message, dressed in Albus Dumbledore-speak, was that consumers use a mobile phone for a constant set of simple functions: taking photos and sharing, listening to music, getting directions and performing a few simple business functions. In other words, the smartphone is becoming less about the hardware and more about the function and the platform (Windows Phone 8, in Nokia's case). To that end, Nokia continues to raise the bar with its cameras (though it seems to be saving its exciting 41-megapixel PureView technology for whatever the next future high-end Lumia phone will be) and a self-portrait mode that guides its user by voice.
People can share photos by "slamming" phones together (not too hard, please), a technique that uses Bluetooth. This slamming extends to non-Nokia devices. Nokia includes its free Nokia Music service -- themed music playlists that users can pin to the Windows start screen.
Nokia is also opening some of its APIs, and the company named Burton, Foursquare and GoPro as partners taking advantage of Nokia's imaging and location-based services. Nokia has also partnered with Dreamworks to create interactive entertainment products that will appear on phones in the second half of 2013, Elop said. Elop also highlighted how companies such as Coca-Cola are dispensing Lumias to their workforces, thanks to Nokia's tight partnership with Microsoft and the phone's tight integration with Office, Exchange, Lync, Office 365 and SharePoint applications.
Imagine if Ericsson or Huawei stole a page from the Nokia playbook. NFV would also be human: warm, but smelly, like food traveling the digestive system. Software-Defined Networking would most certainly be more about what is left out, rather than what gets put in.
No, the 2013 Mobile World Congress wasn't mostly about purity or warmth or humanity at all. It was about laying a foundation. Even if it doesn't feel good in your hand.
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