Page last updated at 09:03 GMT, Monday, 16 February 2009

Mobile tech conference kicks off

By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News, Barcelona

Nokia 5800
Nokia has said it expects a 10% fall in mobile sales in the coming year

Software and services will be the focus of the year's biggest conference dedicated to mobile technology.

The Mobile World Congress convenes in Barcelona with the industry undergoing negative growth.

The rising stars of the industry are tipped to be in areas surrounding mobile broadband and applications for devices such as cloud computing.

But there will also be announcements of new handsets and mobile gadgets.

The economic downturn is likely to be a dominant theme of discussion.

But the sense of a downturn for the mobile industry was made more tangible when Nokia - the leader among handset manufacturers - recently announced it foresaw a 10% fall in mobile phone sales for the coming year.

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The Mobile World Congress expects almost 50,000 visitors

Nokia itself saw its sales fall by 15% from 2007 to 2008, with the fifth largest manufacturer Motorola suffering a 53% drop during the same period.

But that is not to say that the industry as a whole will suffer. Even if fewer people are buying handsets, analysts say the market for software and services based on mobile devices may be recession-proof.

The number of attendees at this year's congress is down by 10%, but Michael O'Hara, chief marketing officer for the GSM Association - the umbrella organisation representing the mobile communications industry worldwide that hosts the Congress - remains hopeful.

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Mr O'Hara points to the spectacular growth of mobile broadband as a sign that parts of the industry have no cause for concern.

"We are going to hear a lot of discussion about how to find your way out of an economic crisis," Mr O'Hara told BBC News. "But I think you are going to hear that this isn't an industry looking for bailouts, it's an industry ready to invest."

Next steps

There are currently almost 100 million subscribers to mobile broadband, and the GSM's estimates put that number at over a billion by 2012.

Every time we have a technology transition period, a number of players don't make it
Bengt Nordstrom, Northstream

As a consequence, one of the biggest talking points at the show is expected to be infrastructure. The current 3G infrastructure is seeing the end of a 10-year cycle, with a few isolated markets signing up to one potential successor, known as Long Term Evolution (LTE).

The High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA) infrastructure that currently drives mobile broadband can support data rates of up to 7.2 megabits per second (Mbps), and the next generation, known as HSPA+, could drive that number up to more than 20 Mbps. HSPA+ will be implemented in a number of markets worldwide later in 2009.

LTE promises speeds of up to 100Mbps - but requires major changes in the cellular base stations that would support it.

That level of investment is a tricky proposition for mobile network operators navigating in uncertain economic times.

And it is not a matter of being first to the post with that kind of speed said Bengt Nordstrom, chief executive of mobile consultancy firm Northstream.

"I haven't seen a case where anyone benefits by being the first to adopt a new technology - they are just guinea pigs for the rest of the industry," said Mr Nordstrom.

"Every time we have a technology transition period, a number of players don't make it, and that's probably the case this time as well."

Mind the apps

The conference will of course host all the major players in the industry - with the notable exception of Apple.

But at Showstoppers, a pre-congress show-and-tell, a look at the smaller names points to a trend in which applications and services for mobile devices could become a major breadwinner for the industry.

Palm Pre smartphone
Palm's Pre is expected to make waves in Barcelona

The fully-connected, multimedia nature of handsets means they contain an ever richer mixture of personal and organisational data, and the ability to move, share, backup, and update that data across devices and "in the cloud" is another evident focus among some of the companies here.

And the mobile browser war continues, with plenty of options available from makers large and small alike - and a growing trend toward browsers and software based on open-source code.

While the success of Apple's software marketplace, the AppStore, is expected to inspire many to follow suit.

The prospect of more applications marketplaces, in which both professional and amateur software developers can sell or give away applications for phones, is spreading widely throughout the industry, and there is much discussion about such giants as Microsoft and Nokia joining the fray.

"If you put a wide range of smartphones on a desk and step away two metres, it's very hard to tell them apart - so that's why software will be crucial in going forward," said Mr Nordstrom.

Despite these shifts toward more software and services within the industry, no Mobile World Congress would be complete without the release of some new handsets, and all the big manufacturers are here.

Among the more notable releases, Palm's new offering the Pre will make waves, and computer manufacturer Acer will enter the market with a handset.

Some manufacturers have made their releases ahead of the Congress, such as the LG Arena, and Nokia's 5800 came out weeks ago to make room for the N73 launch that will happen here.



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