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Moving the world of mobile
22nd March 2011
The Mobile World Congress might not be back in Barcelona next year – we will only know in a few months, but the sixth edition there – the MWC 2011(Feb 14 to 17, 2011) – was a knockout, in no small part because of its setting. Some 65 thousand professionals gathered at the MWC this to check the competition, catch-up on the latest equipment and trade information on the exhibition floor – and, as always, it was worth it.

Okay, you can’t possibly see, you can’t possibly check out every last tablet, smartphone, power system or chip set. Who cares? The MWC’s mind boggle factor, the sensory white out, the sheer overload of new ideas and impressions is what make this a great show. You may not learn much about anything in particular, but you go home with a bag full of new ideas. There were so many things to see, that at the end of the show I still hadn’t found time to check out the latest in backhaul strategies – a top item on my list. Well, there’s next year’s show. I hope it’s in Barcelona again – I like the tapas they serve there.

Android was everywhere, but 350 thousand activations each day are hard to avoid; everyone is talking and writing about it, so I won’t.

At the show, there was abundant evidence of a growing focus on consumer devices – beyond smartphones, PCs, netbooks, tablets and such – to access the Internet, Facebook, SMS, instant messaging and to share whatever content you like with friends and family.  The sort of connectivity we now take for granted on our smartphones and computing devices will soon be embedded in all sorts of devices we regularly use.  Automobiles will not only connect to the Internet, but to your social networks, to location-based information and personal navigation devices. Digital cameras will connect to mobile networks and automatically upload pictures to friends, family, social networking site and your PC at home. Consumers will come to expect this sort of mobile network connectivity on a quickly growing variety of devices starting with gaming devices, media players (iPods, TVs …) and the like.

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The GSMA’ App Planet was back for the second year. App Planet showcases the burgeoning mobile app scene and aims to open direct communications between app developers and platform owners. There was a lot to see. I tried checking the games, but at my advanced age, my personal operating system crashed at the third gaming ‘kraze’. Location based systems left me uncomfortably clinging to my usually lost state of mind. I wandered around the ‘planet’ for a while and found some very good – but not killer – apps, and a number of outright losers. I ended my tour of the planet checking out the healthcare applications.

I’ve been following the use of IT for medical/health applications for a great many years. At one point, more than a decade ago, I considered starting a tele-medicine based service company, but the available technology didn’t measure up. I saw some solid mobile-based applications that fill a real need and should find a market – most of them mobile phone heart monitoring systems, but no really innovative breakaway applications and equipment. Diabetes, heart monitoring, medication reminder systems and such are all good, necessary products, but there are many other medical needs that today’s technology might conceivably address. It was terribly disappointing to see the limited range of innovative medical applications; there should be some way to stimulate new ideas and new cell-based medical systems for a far wider range of serious medical needs. The GSMA might look into what they can do to crank up the search for really original cellphone answers to a much broader range of serious medical problems.

Throughout the show, I kept running into, DPI (deep packet inspection). Not overtly, just slyly stuck into the conversation as traffic management, traffic shaping or customer ‘whatever’ (lots of euphemisms when it comes to DPI). At first, I innocently asked, “oh, how do you do that?” Almost no one responded – ‘DPI’ – most sort of wiggled around the question. Why is everyone so uncomfortable about discussing the technology? Once upon a time, DPI was mostly used for security. It is still used for government ordered surveillance of digital communications. Carriers also use it to discriminate against certain types of traffic and, within limits, this can be justified. But what are the limits are, who sets them, who enforces them and how? DPI can provide very accurate customer surveillance and control content.

The potential for misuse is great. After the show, just a few days ago, Al Jazeera, the Arabic news service, reported that certain Arab governments were using DPI to inspect Facebook and Twitter traffic and react against dissidents. Data is also routinely collected for marketing purposes – and some of the inspection is likely to go deeper than common ethics would allow.

In fact, much of what DPI legitimately does for carriers, to prioritise traffic will not be necessary in the near future. IPv6, the Internet’s new addressing scheme, has two new fields – one designates the service and the other the level of service selected by the user. The service provider need do nothing; the customer will specify the service and agree to the appropriate pricing for each transmission.

I hadn’t thought much about DPI, but it was hard to avoid and it was hard not to question how this deep-probing tool is being used. Not everyone is a paragon of virtue. Certainly, some must use it to obtain information that law enforcement officials can only obtain with a court order.

The Microsoft/Nokia agreement, the Friday before MWC 2011, to form a “broad strategic partnership”, was a hot topic on the exhibition floor. The comments and gossip about the Windows Phone 7 deal, ranged – as one would expect – from pleased about the heightened mobile OS competition to derisive. Generally, the feeling was that if the two manage to work together, effectively sum their market assets, turn their backs on past errors, innovate and move forward on their strengths the mobile OS market could shortly become a true race between Apple, Google, Microsoft and, perhaps, Blackberry – and that was all to the good.

Microsoft previous mobile OS, Windows Phone 6, just didn’t measure up to expectations. I was an early WP6 adopter; I haven’t had an opportunity yet to live with WP7, but what I have seen is a big improvement over its predecessor and a worthy contender in the OS race.

Speaking with Geoff Thomas, Microsoft’s General Manager for its Communications Sector Asian Sales, some of the pieces – especially its history of providing telco operators with such vital back office tools as convergent billing and CRM platforms – of Microsoft’s mobile sector positioning began to click together.

Windows Phone 7 is a fresh start; as such, it is a latecomer to the mobile OS race. Another company might have found the market entry window closed, but many operators know and trust Microsoft solutions and Microsoft has been carefully emphasising how they work with service providers to give them the innovative tools needed to deliver a wide range of new services. The new alliance adds Nokia’s traditional operator ties to the mix.

Microsoft’s OS appeals strongly to many customers – even special niches such as Xbox gamers, but without a fully committed major handset as a standard-bearer it’s been an uphill fight. Now Microsoft can count on Nokia’ and its handsets as it mounts its drive to build WP7’s market. The mix of products, platforms and OS that Microsoft brings to the table can make it a very attractive partner to many telecom operators. None of the other mobile OS providers have this sort of appeal on the telco side of the market – an appeal that might play especially well to those operators concerned about the perceived dangers of an Apple/Android duopoly.

Both Nokia and Microsoft face stiff competition in the high-end smartphone market, but neither is a stranger to competition. Their biggest enemy will be themselves. In the last year, they have both been slow to react to the market as their current market share attests. Still, if they pull together they can be hard to defeat. Microsoft, for one, has a history of running full tilt into market walls until it finally get it right and smash through. I hope they get their game plans sorted; the market needs contenders of their calibre.

Fredric Morris
Editor-in-Chief

Fredric Morris

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