Our predictions for Mobile World Congress 2008

I’ve just arrived in Barcelona with the CCS Insight team for the Mobile World Congress Event (formally 3GSM). This is one of my favourite work-weeks of the year – despite being the most demanding.

I’ve been attending the show for over 10 years and seen it evolve from a little show in Cannes to a giant show in Barcelona. I miss Cannes like mad but our industry has far outgrown what Cannes could offer and the business is no longer a “club” where you know anyone and everyone. Now the mobile phone is the most prolific consumer electronics device on the planet, the scale is in a league of its own. Any industry that ships over a billion units a year is playing in the premiership.

Anyway – enough reminiscence, time to gaze into the crystal ball to see what we expect at the show:

– Web, web and more web: this year will see a land-grab to get so called “Web 2.0” services implemented on mobile phones. In fairness this was a key theme last year, but this time around we predict the web giants will be more visible at the show and the applications available will be more tangible. One thing is for sure – any telecoms companies making a big announcement or doing a keynote will have a “web-friend” by their sides and web company logos all over their slides.

– Mobile Broadband (beyond voice): in typical mobile industry style we convinced ourselves that wireless networks could offer this back in 2005 – the reality is that this is only just now coming to fruition – expect lots of discussion about mobile operators taking on the fixed players in the broadband space. This also means lots of USB dongles, new data plans and doubtless some news on roaming charges for data. For now the technology will largely be powered by 3G on steroids (HSPA) although the usual round of technology hype will start as infrastructure vendors try to persuade us its time to start embracing the next big thing be that WiMax, Super3G, 3.9G, LTE, 4G etc.

– Music: an ongoing theme for the industry but efforts in this area are accelerating. Record labels are in crisis – radical new business models are required, The purchase of single track downloads probably only has a couple more years left in it and DRM looks like it will disappear over the next 12 to 18 months in many cases. As Rob Walls from Universal put it: “We need to move towards a ‘celestial jukebox in the sky’ so you can get your music, anytime, anywhere, on any device at a predicable cost”. Expect record labels to be striking deals left, right and centre with device manufacturers, operators and third party distributors such as Omnifone.

– Video: It seems the time is right for video consumption on mobile devices. The industry has batted this one around for years and definitely went down the wrong track chasing broadcast technologies such as DVB-H and MediaFLO – this was technology looking for a solution. Personally I think Apple and Steve Jobs will be the market maker in this area but it will be a “rising tide” for everyone. Apple sees video as its next big opportunity after music. Jobs and his magical marketing machine will drive demand for video on small devices (iPod Nano / mobile phones) and kick start the market. The difference to previous attempts is that I think this is about “content snacking” – not watching feature films. Forget Bourne films on Motorola phones or Spiderman films on Nokia phones – this is Desperate Housewives, Top Gear, The Simpsons, 24, CSI, Heroes etc. – take the adverts (commercials) out and you have bite size chunks of content people can “snack” on.

– Mobile Advertising: Hype, hype, hype! You’ll hear lots about this at the show. Undoubtedly it is the business model of the 21st century and will play a huge role in years to come, but right now we’re laying the groundwork. As my colleague Paolo predicted earlier in the year, mobile advertising will deliver no meaningful revenues for network operators in the near term – that said, it will become hugely important as some stage.

– Search: In may ways related to advertising as it has similar stakeholders that dominate it (Google / Yahoo!). That said search will evolve this year. “On device” search (similar to desktop search) will proliferate on devices. “Augmented search” will be shown in prototype. Augmented search works like this: take a picture of something (e.g. a landmark) and send it off to the search engine – through image recognition the search engine will “pull” relevant information and send it back to you. An added dimension would be the location where you have taken the picture – this will help contextualise the search (e.g. you are standing near the Eiffel Tower). That said, I think the privacy lobby might have something to say about this one. Take a picture of that “mystery girl on the tube” and get back her Facebook site and pictures on Flickr of her with her friends…..people might want to start thinking a little bit more about the “digital footprint” they are currently making.

– Location: If Nokia delivers against its commitment to make GPS as prolific as cameras in mobile phones then this area is set to explode. Add to that network assisted location and other techniques such as WiFi location (such as that on the iPod touch powered by Skyhook Wireless) and it will be pretty easy to determine where a mobile phone user is. This opens up a plethora of applications which will start with turn by turn location (which most users will think of as TomTom) and will grow to offer countless services: friend finder, geo-tagging of content, location based advertising, assisted search etc.

– Linux: Opensource is gathering momentum in the mobile space and we’re expecting lots of interest and announcements at the show. There is plenty of speculation about Google’s Android and whether there will be phones on display. It’s highly likely there will be early prototypes and reference designs but a full blown commercial product maybe some way off. The spotlight will also be on the LiMo Foundation. It set some bullish expectations at last year’s show with influential partners like NTT DoCoMo, Vodafone, Samsung and Motorola so it will be interesting if its delivers anything. At minimum its needs to tackle fragmentation in the space head. In addition it must pull together a conformance specification which is tighter than the loose set of requirements that seem to have emerged to date. It will also to see if Palm shares any deals of the Linux based platform it is apparently working on.

– Continued assault on the consumer electronics industry: The mobile phone is slowly picking off other consumer electronics products. Digital cameras (you’ll see lots of 5 (and 8) mega-pixel devices at MWC), Digital music players (devices with massive amounts of flash memory 8GB, 16GB etc.) and now personal navigation devices (PNDs). If you are Nikon, Canon, Casio, TomTom, Navman, Apple, Creative or another associated companies you should be worried.

As for the major manufacturers here are a few thoughts:

Nokia: Headline focus on its Ovi services and platform (Maps, Music, Photos, Video, Games, Sharing (Twango – now rebranded as Ovi)). Undoubtedly there will be new devices and a new flagship Nseries device has to be a certainty.

Samsung / LG: The Koreans will wow the show with a huge number of new products just as they did last year – expect innovative designs, big technology statements (8 megapixel cameras, phones with huge flash memory capacity) and devices supporting a multitude of platforms: Microsoft Windows Mobile, Symbian S60 and Linux.

Sony Ericsson: We’re expecting new Cyber-shot and Walkman devices – likely following the technology trend in both areas with the chance of an 8 mega pixel Cyber-shot product (or a new 5 mega pixel model) as well as Walkman phones with lots of on-board flash memory. It is also a make or break year for UIQ. This time last year Sony Ericsson had just acquired UIQ from Symbian – now its time to deliver some products. UIQ is still struggling to get traction in the market with operators such as Orange and Vodafone refusing to support the platform in their devices programmes – Sony Ericsson must address this

Motorola: With the current challenges Motorola faces, we are not expecting much from them. It is highly likely that we’ll see a reprise of the Rokr E8 and Z10 smartphone which were launched at CES in January. The focus is likely to be on the applications and content that runs on these devices.

RIM: It has been sometime since RIM had a disruptive new hardware design for its famous BlackBerry products. We’ll have to see whether they have new devices at the show. RIM will almost certainly talk about the upgraded user interface and functionality on its devices. This may delivery browsing and broadband applications via WiFi or HSDPA. A good example of this is the support of SlingMedia’s place-shifting TV product which was announced at CES.

Cool stuff: Phone projectors – lots of demos expected, connected jewellery – using near field communications (RFID, Bluetooth ULP (formally WiBree) and other proprietary standards), augmented reality – taking advantage of the camera on phones – lots of clever apps here.

Oh well – by this time next week I’ll know how much we got right. Enjoy the show.