Who’ll be big in Barcelona's Mobile World Congress?

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Media captionRory Cellan-Jones previews the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona

Every hotel room is taken, every taxi nabbed, and the streets are packed with bloggers and broadcasters staring at their smartphones and working out how they can get from one press conference to another in 10 minutes. Yes, it's February in Barcelona, and Mobile World Congress has come to town again.

The annual event where the mobile industry lays out its wares and tries to gaze into the future just gets ever noisier, with thousands of companies determined to make a splash. So what will be big in Barcelona? Here are a few thoughts.

New phones

Dozens of new handsets are being launched here at lavish press events besieged by excited hordes of industry analysts and technology journalists - it's like a sweatier, more male version of London Fashion Week.

But show anyone who isn't a mobile phone geek the HTC One series, or Sony's new Xperia phones, or Fujitsu's first try at bringing Japanese mobile know-how to the European market, and they will struggle to tell these handsets apart.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A new HTC One handset

Smartphones are getting smarter, with quad-core processors and 12 megapixel cameras, but they all fit the same template - big glass touchscreens with no keyboards or buttons, all running Google's Android operating system.

That means every minor difference has to be emphasised. Sony seemed very excited last night to be launching a phone where part of the screen was see-through. The company which has dropped the Ericsson and gone solo in mobile phones scaled new heights of rhetoric, claiming that its latest handsets were uniquely "peoplecentric", and that they would "bring out the best in the people who use them".

New services

But it is through a range of different services - from music, to movies, to mobile money - that all of the various Android clones are hoping to stand out from the crowd.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The 3G networks struggled to cope with numbers

And companies like Microsoft and Sony, which haven't made much of an impact on the phone market lately, believe the sheer range of what they can offer in terms of services and content will prove compelling to consumers.

The other new feature suddenly coming to many phones is NFC (aka Near Field Communications), allowing you to swipe to get various services - entry to a sports event, or payment for a sandwich. This has been promised for a very long time - we will now find out whether people really want to swipe.

New networks

Anyone who has visited Barcelona during Mobile World Congress will know what a strain the thousands of smartphone-wielding delegates put on the 3G networks. At Sony's press conference last night, I tried to get online with two different 3G mobile broadband mifi units - one failed completely, the other showed a speed of 0Mbps when I tested it.

But the big hope is 4G, already up and running in parts of the United States - and even in Moscow, according to a man I ran into in a Barcelona cafe. He is an American working for a firm called Yota, which is apparently making it easier and faster for Russians to use the mobile internet than the fixed-line version.

Europe is lagging behind in adopting 4G - with the UK near the back of the pack - and to demonstrate what we're missing, the Spanish telecoms giant Telefonica has laid on a temporary network in and around the Mobile World Congress exhibition halls. Launching the network, which uses technology developed by Alcatel Lucent, a Telefonica executive demonstrated HD video streaming perfectly on a Samsung 4G-enabled tablet.

But don't get too excited about a faster mobile experience - in the UK we need to see the spectrum auctioned and the new masts put up, and then we will all need new phones. "You mean you're not going to have 4G in time for the Olympics?" the man from the Russian firm asked me incredulously. I'm afraid not...

Apple v Android v ?

But the biggest story here is not about the launch of new handsets or new services, it's the fight for third place in the war of the smartphone operating systems. Android and Apple have run off with most of the market, leaving everyone else struggling to make an impression.

Two of the giants of this industry, Nokia - which has bet its future on the Windows Phone system - and the Blackberry maker RIM now need to haul themselves out of the frighteningly fast decline they have each experienced over the past couple of years. I will be speaking to senior executives from both companies later on Monday, and will report back.