- 16 Feb 09, 09:02 GMT
If you fancy a couple of days in Barcelona right now, my advice is to forget it. The flights are full, a hotel room will cost you a fortune, and the place is full of geeky types talking a strange language - LTE, MVNO, HSPA - and pointing excitedly at the tiny screens in their hands.
This is the week the Mobile World Congress comes to town, and the thousands gathered here are even less interested than normal in the glories of Gaudi, or a ramble down the Ramblas. For only the second time in its history the mobile industry is bracing itself for a year of contraction, with handsets sales forecast to drop.
But that doesn't mean that innovation has come to a halt - quite the opposite, with everyone even more desperate to prove that their handset or service can really bring something new to the table. So what are we hoping to see? Here's what's on my list:
It seems using a mobile just to make a call is now very old hat, so expect more all-singing all-dancing phones-that-think-they're-computers. Sony Ericsson jumped the gun last night, with a phone combining a Walkman with an 8.1-megapixel camera, but Samsung may trump that with a phone which shoots video in HD (er, why?). There will be yet more touchscreen iPhone lookalikes - I'm interested in getting a look at Nokia's N97 and the Palm Pre which I've heard are the best efforts yet at knocking Apple from its smartphone perch. Energy efficiency is another theme, with a couple of solar-powered handsets on display. And at long last we may see a second Android phone based on Google's software platform - T-Mobile's G1 has had the field to itself so far. At the other end of the complexity spectrum, there is even wild talk of a Lego phone, which must be some kind of retro joke aimed at the yuppies who wielded those "brick" phones in the '80s.
Now that just about every phone is a smartphone, it is the software that is becoming the differentiating factor. I spent yesterday evening at a preview event for some of the smaller exhibitors and just about every one seemed to be in software, not hardware. Turning voice messages into text may be one theme - Britain's Spinvox may see itself undercut by others doing a similar job at a lower price. Location-based services are another - but then again, the mobile industry has been selling the idea of arranging your social life via a mobile Google map for years, and I've sill not met anyone who does it.
As the High Street closes down, a whole new range of shops is opening up in the internet cloud, with Microsoft and others rushing to imitate Apple's iPhone Apps Store. Expect a flood of hopeful developers promising to turn your Nokia or your Windows Mobile into a musical instrument or a games arcade.
No, not just the outlandish amounts of cash your operator charges you to surf the web whenever you leave the country, but the use of mobiles as "digital wallets", allowing users to pay for small items without cash. This has been a long time coming, but as we report elsewhere on this site, the convergence of two technologies - contactless cards and advanced mobile phones - could now spark a revolution in the way we pay. It's already happening in developing countries, where many people without bank accounts are now using phones to transfer money - I'll be looking out for more signs of the spread of mobile money.
If 2008 was the year of the dongle, expect a whole lot more progress on the mobile broadband front this year. I've already met one firm selling a device which takes a 3g signal and turns it into a portable wi-fi hotspot that you can share amongst a number of users in the home, the office - even in the car. But we're now moving beyond 3g to much faster networks, and Barcelona will be the scene for a battle between two rival technologies - LTE and WiMax - the backers of which believe that they provide the answer to the wireless broadband future.
There - in just one sentence I've used enough mobile industry jargon to convince anyone to steer clear of Barcelona this week. But I will try to decipher what they're talking about in the halls of the Mobile World Congress and pass on a translation to you.
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