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The “phablet” and other thoughts on the future of mobile


The one-line summary of Mobile World Congress 2013: The inside matters more than the outside.

Outside: Barcelona, the hosting city with more than five kilometres of Mediterranean beaches in the city centre, is not supposed to be freezing cold and rainy at the end of February. But it was.

Inside: The brand new conference centre is more spacious than ever. The exhibition itself covered the equivalent of 40 football fields and was bright, warm, and filled with fresh air to keep attendees alert during four days of panel discussions, keynote presentations, product demonstrations, and announcements.

Inside: The move to the flashier new venue, the Fira Gran Via on the outskirts of Barcelona, was precipitated by the sheer growth of Mobile World Congress:

  • In a couple of years, attendance has gone from 20,000, when the conference was held in Cannes, France, to 72,000 from more than 200 countries in Barcelona. 
  • This year set a new record with more than 1,700 companies showcasing products and services across the 94,000 square metres of exhibition space. 
  • This year also saw a record attendance of government delegations from 143 countries. 
  • More than 3,400 international media and industry analysts attended to report on the mobile revolution.
  • Mobile World Congress contributed more than €320 million (US$ 417 million) to the local economy, an increase of €19 million (US$ 25 million) from 2012, according to an independent economic analysis.

Outside: The Spanish economy is the opposite of growth and prosperity. The country’s leading daily, El País, concluded: “The best congress in the worst year” (“La mejor feria del peor año”):

  • On the final day of the conference, the Spanish government released numbers that showed a decline of 1.9% in GDP for the last trimester of 2012.
  • Unemployment hit an all-time high in February, with more than five million Spanish adults looking for jobs, 7% more than a year ago. (Five million is the official number of those actively job hunting. But the total number of unemployed is close to six million.)
  • Media companies are, of course, affected by the slumping Spanish economy, with advertising plummeting in 2012. Traditional media in Spain lost almost €1 billion, from €5.5 billion (US$7.1 billion) in 2011 to €4.6 billion (US$6 billion), a 15.8% decline. 
  • Newspapers took an even harder hit, losing 20.8% of their ad revenues. For the first time in Spain, Internet advertising exceeded print: €880 million (US$1.15 billion) to €766 million (US$996 million).
  • As you can see in the graph below (from InfoAdex), television is still by far taking the biggest chunk of advertising in Spain.
Ad revenues for media in Spain 2011 2012 %
Newspapers 967.0 € 766.3 € - 20,8%
Outdoor 394.8 € 326.3 € - 17,4%
Internet 899.2 € 880.5 € - 2,1%
Radio 524.9 € 453.5 € - 13,6%
Magazines 381.1 € 313.7 € - 17,7%
Television 2,237.2 € 1,815.3 € - 18.9%

So, in the context of this, let’s turn the actual event inside-out and see what takeaways Mobile World Congress offers.

On the outside, the most important trend in hardware is the blurred line between phones and tablets. The phones get bigger, and the tablets smaller.

With the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, launched at MWC, we now have a “phone” that is one inch bigger than the smallest tablets. We’ll see if the Newspeak word “phablet” will stick, but LG Communications Director Ken Hong says consumer demand for such devices are growing, particularly in Asia among women, who can accommodate them in the purse.

For news media companies, this will increasingly put focus on responsive design for mobile services, apps, and Web sites to ensure proper consumer experience on varying screen sizes.

Considering that tablet users so far have been relatively stationary, phablets will increase mobility among consumers, thus presenting an opportunity to provide rich media with location-based elements on the go.

On the outside, as phones get super-sized, another emerging trend is super-small screens. Wearables, such as connected “smart-watches,” was a buzzword at MWC. What kind of content and services do you create for the one-inch screen?

On the inside, though, is where the most important development is taking place. Ever since Microsoft and Nokia announced their partnership to make Windows Phones back in 2011, the industry has been waiting for the third ecosystem to emerge behind Google and Apple, which already claimed the No. 1 and No. 2 spots.

Although Windows Phone 8 is finally gaining market share in Europe — from 2.6% in 2011 to 5.4% last year — neither Nokia/Microsoft nor RIM/Blackberry have been able to establish significant market share.

So the race for the third ecosystem is still open. And the bronze medalist could very well be ... the open Web.

In Barcelona, Mozilla announced a new line of smartphones based on its Firefox mobile operating system. Firefox is already established as the No. 2 browser, behind Internet Explorer.

Now the company is aiming for the smartphone market. Apps for Firefox OS will be HTML5-based, the open Web language that challenges native apps and the need for the App store or Google Play. A new generation of software could also lower costs for developers.

And Mozilla is a non-profit organisation. From a Microsoft perspective, how do you compete with a company that essentially gives away its software?

Firefox OS is supported by several big companies, among them Deutsche Telekom in Europe and Sprint Nextel in the United States, and phone makers LG and Huawei. And Twitter has promised to make specific apps for Firefox OS.

From a news media perspective, the open Web emerging as the third platform is good news. That would diminish the role of middlemen like Apple and Google and make cross-platform development more streamlined.

On the inside of many new smartphones (iPhone 5 excluded) is now a Near Field Communication (NFC) chip, which enables contactless transactions such as payments, ticket validation, or transfer of information.

What drew the most attention at the Mobile World Congress was the use of NFC beyond contactless payments, focusing on value-added services for customers.

For news media companies, NFC technology is an opportunity to drive engagement and add interactivity for advertisers or enhance content. The technology is just a small piece of a big shift.

What we’re facing now is the prospect of mass media becoming mass personalisation. With smart processing of data generated by tethered users, communication will morph from broadcast to “me-cast,” a personalised package of commercial, editorial, and user-generated content.

That will change traditional advertising.

The big players get it — and are taking action. At Mobile World Congress, Tom Daly, director of mobile and search at Coca-Cola, said: “I am looking at how we can use mobile technology and content to get a transaction. We are not just in the brand-building business, we are in the direct-response business.”

Look for more takeaways from Mobile World Congress. To be continued.

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