As usual, the last few days spent in Barcelona have flown by. At the world’s largest gathering of mobile phone manufacturers, service operators, network vendors and all the ancillary companies and media, time for quiet contemplation is a rare thing. So it’s only now, sat in a cafe at the airport, consuming the obligatory cerveza and Iberico ham sandwich that I’ve really had time to collect my thoughts about the event.
The first thing to note is that the mobile industry is not immune to the economic downturn. Even if their revenues haven’t yet seen the impact of reduced consumer spending and restricted access to credit, companies at the show were universally conservative in their approach. Most companies brought around 20% fewer staff, and there was none of the extravagant gestures seen in previous years. No all-expenses-paid parties for hundreds of hangers on, no sponsored Smart cars blaring out music around the airport, few monstrous billboards wrapped around whole buildings.
That’s not to say that the event was dull. Two of the eight halls still featured towering stands promoting the latest, flashiest technologies to hit the market. On the consumer side, new handsets featured solar panels, miniature projectors and 3D interfaces. Great accessories from companies like the quirky, French Parrot showed how the mobile phone will increasingly be the hub for our digital lives, allowing the transfer of photos from phone to frame with a wave of your hand, and providing audiophile-quality speakers for your iPhone. On the network side, vendors promoted high-bandwidth all-IP networks designed for super-fast mobile broadband. With the next iteration of the current 3G mobile phone standard still three years out (depending on who you talk to), there was a real resurgence in interest in WiMAX, an alternative technology available today.
But the overriding message was one of optimisation: making the most of what you’ve got. Increasingly vendor marketing is about how products will make the most of the networks’ current investments. While innovation in the consumer device continues apace, it seems the next few years might be a period of retrenchment for the operator networks. They need to get their current networks up to scratch in order to cope with the rapid growth in popularity of today’s technologies.
Mobile broadband take-up — both on devices and laptop dongles — has been spectacular in the UK and other developed markets, to the point where the demand is testing the capabilities of networks in busy areas. That trend is set to continue with Microsoft and Nokia announcing their own equivalents of Apple and Google’s App Stores, to enable users to easily find additional applications for their mobile phones. These applications often require connectivity, increasing the volume of traffic flowing over the networks.
I’ll be interested to see how these new marketplaces stack up against the booming Google Android and Apple iPhone equivalents. And how the networks cope with the continuing boom in network traffic.