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Getting smart at Mobile World

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:13 UK time, Monday, 15 February 2010

BARCELONA: Thinking of a trip to Barcelona this week? Don't bother. Flights and hotel rooms are either unavailable or will cost a king's ransom and the city is throbbing with irritable types shouting into three phones at once. For this is the week when the mobile phone industry comes to pay homage to Catalonia - or rather to try to do as many deals and exchange as much gossip as possible between beers and tapas at Mobile World Congress.

Screengrab of Mobile World Conference siteThe mood this year should be grim after a 2009 that this industry like many others will want to forget - mobile handset sales fell for the first time most in the mobile world can remember. But for what you might call the 'smart set' it wasn't such a bad year. Smartphone sales raced ahead, with the retail analysts Gfk calculating that sales in Western Europe rose a staggering 109% in the last three months of 2009 compared to the same period in 2008.

So that's where the growth and the profits are and it's the question of which handsets and which operating systems are going to rampage across this smartphone battleground in 2010, consigning their opponents to oblivion, which is exciting visitors to Barcelona this week.

What's the state of the smartphone market then as this event gets under way? If you were to believe one Sunday newspaper, Apple rules the roost - Nokia "has been plunged into crisis by the arrival of the iPhone and iPad" read a headline. Well, it's true that the iPhone changed the rules of the game but the figures don't yet add up to a crisis for Nokia, even though it was caught on the hop by the arrival of first touchscreen then apps.

The research firm CCS has sent me their report on the market for 2009. It shows smartphones running Symbian - formerly owned by Nokia, now open source - still have 46% of the market, though that's down from 64% in 2007. In second place comes Blackberry with 20%, followed by Apple with 14%, with Google's Android moving forward to take 4% of the market. So Apple's advance has been quite remarkable - but it's got some way to go before it really makes Nokia suffer.

Actually I've left out one player which has repeatedly tried and failed to move its desktop muscle into the mobile world - Microsoft. Its Windows Mobile operating system had just 11% of the market last year, so if anyone has been plunged into crisis by the arrival of the iPhone, it's Microsoft's mobile division.

That makes this afternoon's news conference at which the firm's CEO Steve Ballmer will apparently unveil a completely new approach to its mobile strategy all the more interesting. Everyone is expecting Windows Mobile 7 - and many journalists are stifling yawns - but Microsoft PR people are hinting that they really have got something interesting up their sleeves.

Apart from that, one of the more interesting events should be Tuesday's launch of new HTC handsets. The Taiwanese firm used to be an obscure maker of "white-label" handsets for operators - but three years ago began to push its own brand with increasing vigour. It's also the maker of Google's Nexus One - but is already hinting that it will have something better than that which also uses Google's Android operating system.

Like Apple, Google has no stand here but is a big looming presence. And this year the company's CEO Eric Schmidt is giving the Mobile World Congress keynote speech late on Tuesday, and may face some interesting questions: How's the China crisis working out? Was the Buzz launch really such a great way to convince the world you valued the privacy of their data - and how amused are you by the fact that HTC seems determined to steal the Nexus One's thunder?

And as I finish writing, news is coming through that 24 mobile operators, including many of the biggest names, have allied with the handset makers LG, Samsung and Sony Ericsson to create what they call the Wholesale Applications Community. Their idea, they say, is to cut through the complexity of the mobile apps world so that developers can be free to make apps that will work on just about any phone.

In other words, they don't like the way Apple and its iPhone completely dominate the apps ecosystem. So yet again a company which doesn't turn up at Mobile World Congress is making its presence felt in Barcelona.

Update 09:50:This was supposed to be a quiet Mobile World Congress with some major absentees and not a lot of news breaking. Instead the first morning has already brought a couple of eye-catching developments.

While most of us have been concentrating on high-end phones and ultra fast networks Vodafone's big announcement was pointed in the other direction. The mobile operator is unveiling two phones aimed at developing countries. One will sell at $15 or less, the other at $20 or less, and Vodafone says the phones will be launched first in India, Turkey and in eight African countries. The phones - with a tiny screen and hardly any features - may look unsophisticated to smartphone users, but the aim is to get them to people deep in the countryside where there's a big unmet need for mobile connectivity.

Then there was Adobe making clear that it wasn't going to be intimidated by Apple, which has said some unkind things recently about its Flash video platform. Adobe is now making clear its ambitions to bring Flash to a wide range of mobiles, even if Apple has shunned it on both the iPhone and the iPad. And by teaming up with 70 developers in what it's calling the Open Screen Project the software firm is part of a growing challenge to Apple's more locked-down vision of our mobile future.


  • Comment number 1.

    "Most journalists yawn" - that's because "If you were to believe one Sunday newspaper, Apple rules the roost " and "Apple and its iPhone completely dominate the apps ecosystem". Apple only dominates the iPhone apps ecosystem - and even then only that bit which eminates from itunes. There is a growing and thriving jailbroken apps market out there free from the shackles of Apple's grasp.
    I seem to recall Apple tried this approach in the early days of the PC - but just as their, admitttedly excellent, product failed to dominate the market back then because of their overtight control, so the 'open' and 'co-operative' approach of rest of the smartphone market is likely to see similar results.
    We of the non Mac brigade are used to being able to get software from pretty much anywhere to run on our pc's and we expect our smartphones to be extensions of the same.

  • Comment number 2.

    It's true that there is an ever growing list of of "jailbroken apps" available. However, I'd hardly call it a market (as they're free). Also, the number of tech savvy handset users out there with enough time to crack their phone/apps is vastly outnumbered by those who simply want convenience and who are willing to spend a couple £ on something useful or entertaining (surprisingly some apps actually are).

    I think it's highly unlikely that we'll see a successful consortium between 24 of the world's largest Mobile Operators. It's difficult enough for OPCOs in multiple countries to coordinate, communicate, and agree (on practically anything). The thought of say Vodafone, Telefonica and China Telecom... all agreeing on a list of complex standards and a marketing vision is really quite amusing. Perhaps there was more beer than Tapas at that meeting?

  • Comment number 3.

    I don't understand the whole problem with Apple's locked down iPhone. People buy XBox and Playstation consoles with similar restrictions. It's a phone, it's not a general purpose computer.

  • Comment number 4.

    "aim is to get them to people deep in the countryside where there's a big unmet need for mobile connectivity"
    Just wondering what the signal is like there? if its anything like this country it doesnt matter how expencive (or cheap) your phone is - it won't work!!!

  • Comment number 5.

    @ #3 "consoles with similar restrictions" - and there is a good reason for that - Sony dont want to share income with Microsoft. And im sure the same could be said for Vodaphone / Apple / Everyone else. I agree it sounds unlikely to happen

  • Comment number 6.

    it's not a general purpose computer

    That shows quite a lack of imagination. Modern smartphones are as powerful as desktop PCs of only a very few years ago, and have better internet connections. To have that potential squandered by pointless artificial restrictions is a tragic waste.

  • Comment number 7.

    Who really cares that much?
    Modern family scenario: I have a CrackBerry as it is the only mobile mail tool allowed by my company (a real no-brainer that), my significant other has an i-Phone - has turned her from a technophobe into an avid user - well done apple, the various children floating about our extended family have various smartphones (I can't actually keep track, they get changed so often ( - phones, not kids)).
    All are useful for dabbling on the net, but for serious work, we all use our laptops and desktops back at home.
    Smartphones - useful on the move and really quite handy till you can get to a larger screen attached to some web-connected device.

  • Comment number 8.

    @ #3 sorry giles, you don't get it do you? the prob is the new generation of user wants to do everything on every platform - hence me typing this using a wireless keyboard on a wii when there is a perfectly adequate win7 laptop in the room and a desktop in my study. I wish games werent so locked down. If apple allowed flash I might be tempted to get iPad to replace my 12month old netbook but until it does, or websites stop using flash I will stay clear. if a processor is capable, and the customer has bought the product why can the customer (me) not choose how I use it?

  • Comment number 9.

    I'm entering this from my new Nokia N900 and as a user that demands flexibility, it's a joy! It looks superficially like a phone but runs rings around the iPhone! It is a tablet PC with a built in phone and the capability to do things with the other computers on my home network that would probably be beyond the comprehension of the (very) average locked in device user.

  • Comment number 10.

    I write this from an N97, I have allways been on the symbian Os ever scince the n95. I have allways downloaded apps from my Pc and instaleld to my phone from there and still continue to do so to this day.
    I can run SSH to config my linux box and do small tasks like that and run DOS box for old PC games and vBag for Nintendo games (ones i own for my old Gameboy advance). to change the phone from the stance of being open form like a PC would be a step backward in my opinion, i am used to the "do all freedom" on my phones and withought it i would only have a basic phone as there would be no point in having all that hardware limited by what a provider wants me to have.

  • Comment number 11.

    Well, having just watched the video, I'm sort of stifling a yawn over Windows Mobile 7 too.

    The product itself looks OK as a demo and will have a more standard look across all products (as MS look to tighten what customisations can be made to the interface) but, in the end, this is behind the curve. The experience is playing catchup with the iPhone OS and even some of Nokia's later products (which are not stellar but certainly look like they are moving in the right direction and still are the biggest player in the mobile market).

    While WinMob 7 lauches, iPhone 4 looms and even the N900 is upping its game. I'm not entirely sure what's distinctive about this in a busy and evolving marketplace.

  • Comment number 12.

    Just thought I'd mention, as the article implies, that this is the first major update to Windows Mobile that Microsoft has released since 2007 (before the iPhones and Android arrived on the scene) and, as far as I'm aware, it's the first time Microsoft has ever done a complete rewrite of the OS (or at least the first time it's ever tried to change many of its key concepts). Therefore this qualifies as its initial response to Apple and Google, and it's also its first attempt to produce a consumer-oriented smartphone OS as HTC (manufacturer of 80% of Windows Mobile devices ever) was happy enough with the business and enthusiast market until 2006 when it launched its own brand.

    It's also worth noting that Microsoft intend to keep working on Windows Mobile 6.x, making their approach to the market two-tiered.

    On a side note, as Windows Mobile 7 is based on Windows CE 6 (rather than Windows CE 5, which dates from 2004), the neat trick of being able to run Android on Windows Phones will suddenly become very difficult (most probably to the extent that nobody bothers trying).

    Anyway, while I will miss the good days of Windows Mobile 6(.0, .1 and .5) and its ancestors, I do hope that Microsoft has managed to convert Rory from his iObsession. Even Engadget, who are traditionally abusive to anything to do with Windows Mobile, have decided that the new user interface is unrivalled and that all previous opinions on Windows Mobile should be forgotten.

  • Comment number 13.

    "If you were to believe one Sunday newspaper, Apple rules the roost - Nokia "has been plunged into crisis by the arrival of the iPhone and iPad" read a headline."

    I agree. Fortunately Mr Wray has absolutely no credibility and is a bit of a laughing stock in the tech world so it's not really an issue.

    As for Windows Mobile 7 (or whatever it's called), it looks interesting but time will tell.

  • Comment number 14.

    Nokia "was caught on the hop by the arrival of first touchscreen then apps". OK, I'll give you the touchscreen comment, but apps? Come on Rory, get it right and stop being so Apple-centric, I was running 'apps' on a Nokia 6680 in the summer of 2005! And more than one at a time as well...
    Even touchscreens were not an innovation. The only 2 things, which have turned out to be big things, that Apple have innovated are a gesture interface and an app #store# you access straight from the phone.

  • Comment number 15.

    Andy Moore.. Your quite right apple innovated nothing in the iPhone, they innovated the marketing of it, thats all. Symbian UIQ devices had apps and touchscreens when Apple was still a failing company.
    I wonder the wisdom of having a technology correspondent who not only seems heavily biased, and inexperienced (i remember the Windows 7 review Rory, it was very telling) but is also completely clueless.

  • Comment number 16.

    @Andy Moore and ChrisM,
    So Nokia had huge multi-touch, finger-friendly capacitive touchscreens, a desktop-class web browser, rock-solid desktop-class OS, visual voicemail, 3D graphics accelerated unified multi-touch GUI, accelerometer, 30%-70% commision-based App store, vertically-integrated on-phone and computer Store selling music, TV shows, movies, audio books with one-click ease of purchase, mandatory secure code-signing & sandboxing of Apps to eliminate malware, 8GBs of on-board storage etc etc way back in 2007 did they?

    In reality of course, Nokia and others didn't and still don't have most of these features. Apple innovated in all these areas and more and over 75 million iPhone OS devices and 3 billion App downloads emphatically says the general public agrees.

    You both just come across as sad Apple-haters trying to deny these facts.


  • Comment number 17.

    @ Martin Hill
    1. Huge Multi-touch, finger-friendly capacitive touchscreens - No
    2. Desktop-class Web Browser - No, but does Apple? *Cough NO FLASH*
    3. Rock-solid Desktop class OS - No, but again the iPhone doesn't either.
    4. Visual voicemail - ... what?
    5. 3D graphics accelerated unified multi-touch GUI - No
    6. accelerometer - YES
    7. 30%-70% commision-based App store - They had an app store, no idea about comission though
    8. vertically-integrated on-phone and computer Store selling music - No
    9. TV shows - Yes (N96 and iPlayer?)
    10. movies, audio books with one-click ease of purchase - Again, No
    11. mandatory secure code-signing & sandboxing of Apps to eliminate malware - No, but we didn't need it :)
    12. 8GBs of on-board storage - ref N95 8GB

  • Comment number 18.

    @Mike Gowland
    Good to see we can agree on 4 of my list of iPhone innovations. Now for the remaining ones:

    2. No other mobile web browser had the full-screen, Web 2.0, Ajax, Javascript, WSYWIG, pinch-to-zoom goodness of Mobile Safari back in 2007. Flash? Well I think Apple would probably argue that no proprietary plugin should be allowed to rule the internet in this day and age, but of course no other mobile platform had the Flash player back in 2007 either and no - Flash Lite definitely does not qualify!
    3. Rock-solid Desktop class OS. Actually, the iPhone did and does boast 500MBs of the solid UNIX-based Mac OS X running on mobile hardware sharing the same industry-leading Cocoa, NeXT-based object-oriented dev environment and Core Graphics, Core Audio, Core Data etc features of the desktop Mac. If your argument is that it doesn't multi-task, then you're wrong as it is only 3rd party apps that aren't yet allowed to. Do you really want to argue that the Psion calculator-based Symbian S60 or Windows CE-based WinMo or the two-way pager-derived Blackberry OS were at all comparable an OS back in 2007? In contrast, Android *can* claim desktop-class status, but of course it came after the iPhone.
    4. Do you really not know what a water-shed it was for Apple to get a Carrier to jointly implement a new visual way of displaying voicemail on a cell phone?
    6. I'm not aware of any other smartphone with a built-in accelerometer for automatically re-orienting the screen or powering games back then?
    7. Every other app store like Handango and carriers like Verizon took anywhere between 50-90% off app developers back in 2007
    9. One-click purchase of TV-shows for other platforms in 2007? iPlayer for Mobile platforms didn't launch till 2008
    11. Malware - so you're happy with Symbian and other mobile OSes having viruses, worms, trojans, root kits etc? The iPhone is only vulnerable if you jailbreak it and don't change the default root SSH password.
    12. The 8GB N95 didn't launch till 5 months after the iPhone was unveiled.

    As I say, to argue that the iPhone's only major innovation was advertising is *beyond* wrong.



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