Smart money's on phones taking over PCs as future of computing
Mobile World Congress 2011 heralds boom in tablets as rivals hope to take bite out of Apple's iPad market, writes Ronan Price in Barcelona
MORE smartphones were sold than computers in the last quarter for the first time ever, thanks to the explosive popularity of devices such as the iPhone and BlackBerry.
Mobile makers shipped more than 100 million smartphones in Q4 as consumers snapped up handsets almost as fast as they were made.
The news that mobile is now the dominant player in computing came before the giant trade show Mobile World Congress (MWC) kicked off in Barcelona this week. The annual event has grown into the industry's most important date on the calendar, this year attracting more than 50,000 industry heavy-hitters looking to do business. It's estimated by its organisers to be worth more than €220m to the local economy.
Google chief executive Eric Schmidt told delegates at the conference on Tuesday: "Smartphones surpassed PC sales last week. PCs are not catching up. Smartphones are the future of games, productivity, apps, everything we think about. You have the phone (as) the new PC, if you will.
"This smartphone in my hand has 20,000 more computing capabilities than the lunar mission."
The other topic on everyone's lips was last week's bombshell that Nokia was effectively abandoning its own underperforming software and adopting Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 platform for its smartphones in an attempt to compete with the iPhone.
Nokia boss Stephen Elop appeared to suggest the deal would net the Finnish giant "billions" from Microsoft but he later clarified the figure included substantial savings on R&D. Either way, the stock markets weren't impressed and Nokia's shares plunged almost 20pc before recovering slightly in recent days.
Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer took to the stage at MWC on Monday to reassure investors that the Nokia tie-up would yield results after disappointing early sales of Windows Phone 7.
"It's clear today the mobile industry is moving from a device battle to a platform battle," said Mr Ballmer, explaining he wanted to create an ecosystem to rival that of Apple and Google's Android.
"Nokia's involvement will drive volume and accelerate the adoption of the Windows Phone 7 platform."
However, Nokia phones based on Windows Phone 7 are not expected until late this year at the earliest and Mr Ballmer's speech contained little other news that would cost Apple and Google much sleep.
Occupying almost 60,000 square metres of exhibition space in the heart of Barcelona, the sprawling halls of MWC 2011 made the RDS look like a doll's house.
Outside, in an effort to combat the city's notorious reputation for pickpockets and muggings, police and security kept a high profile around the venue, mindful no doubt of the rich pickings offered by the 50,000 gadget-laden delegates.
Inside, almost 1,400 companies -- including 70 from Ireland -- hawked their technology and services including mobile operators, software companies, equipment providers, internet firms and media and entertainment organisations.
They encompassed the biggest brands -- such as Samsung, LG, HP and BlackBerry -- to tiny start-ups with odd names like Spicysoft, Fiabee and Nedstack.
Amid the cacophony, some firms resorted to the trade-show staple of stacking their stand with beautiful women in fetching evening wear for no apparent reason.
Other PR stunts were more successful, such as the group of actors hired to promote 'The Sims' videogame, who followed delegates at random while wearing the iconic Sims diamond on their heads.
It wouldn't be a mobile trade show without an avalanche of new handsets and MWC 2011 didn't disappoint as hundreds of phones made their debut.
Rumours that Mark Zuckerberg would attend this year's conference to unveil a Facebook phone were unfounded.
However, the founder of the social networking site did make a contribution by video in something of a coup for Taiwanese firm HTC as it launched two phones with a Facebook button for quick updates.
Mr Zuckerberg said in the video: "A lot has been made about a single Facebook phone, but this year, you can expect to see dozens of phones with deeper social integrations than anything we have seen so far."
If there was one unifying theme at MWC, it was the boom in phones and tablets based on Google's Android software, whose sales have grown 900pc in the past year.
LG jumped on to the Avatar bandwagon with the introduction of a phone and a tablet that can record and playback in 3D. The LG Optimus 3D is an Android phone featuring two cameras and a special screen that does not require glasses for the 3D effect.
The 9-inch Optimus Pad is a tablet like the iPad but runs the newest Android software. It also has two cameras but viewing the 3D effect requires the use of special glasses.
The Korean firm also announced a deal with YouTube to enable the videos recorded on the devices to be uploaded to YouTube's 3D channel. Both machines will be available before the summer but no prices have been revealed.
LG was just one of dozens of firms hoping to cash in on the popularity of the iPad. Tablets are now the must-have item in every portfolio after Apple caught everyone off guard last year. Motorola was touting its Xoom tablet, which includes a 10-inch screen and two cameras; while BlackBerry was talking up its 7-inch PlayBook. Both are expected to go on sale shortly.
But most impressive of all was HP's 10-inch Touch Pad, whose slickly engineered software could show the iPad a thing or two. However, HP refused to reveal pricing and said availability was not until the summer.
Apple, of course, never attends events like these, preferring to stage its own conferences for maximum publicity -- but it did make one important announcement that coincided with MWC.
The company unveiled its newspaper and magazine subscription plan for iTunes that allows consumers to sign up for multiple issues with one click -- a move which could greatly boost online revenues for publishers.
Apple boss Steve Jobs, who is on long-term sick leave, said: "We believe this innovative subscription service will provide publishers with a new opportunity to expand digital access to their content on to the iPad, iPod touch and iPhone."