Mobile World Congress: Microsoft rings the changes
Next week at Mobile World Congress, Microsoft will seek to show that its phones can still compete with those of Google and Apple. Claudine Beaumont reports
I’m afraid your shiny, new mobile phone could look distinctly old-fashioned by this time next week. Exhibitors at 2010’s Mobile World Congress are set to unveil a huge selection of new handsets, platforms and services designed to cement the mobile phone’s position at the centre of the digital landscape.
Screen size, processors and even the way we use our phones are all expected to be key battlegrounds. While Apple’s iPhone may have set new standards for touch-screen interfaces, rivals are hoping to steal a march by showcasing the next evolution of “input methods”.
Speech recognition is one such example, with Google’s Nexus One demonstrating the power of being able to voice-search or dictate entire emails.
Intelligent typing technology, which bolsters the capabilities of the virtual keyboard, will also feature heavily at the show. Swype, which allows users to “swipe” their finger across the phone’s screen to input a word, rather than tapping out each individual letter, will be available on an increasing range of phones.
In the topsy-turvy world of technology, the power of traditional mobile phone companies is under growing pressure. Nokia, the world’s biggest phone maker, has decided not to exhibit at this year’s show; yet Google, buoyed by the growing popularity of its Android operating system, is expected to have a significant presence.
Eric Schmidt, the company’s chief executive, is giving the event’s keynote address, and is expected to call on the mobile industry to support open standards, greater innovation, and embrace the full potential of the mobile web.
Over the coming months, Google will be looking to enhance its position in the mobile space, growing its share of the smartphone market, and launching new search and location-aware services that could help to transfer some of its desktop search and advertising success to mobile devices.
“There’s going to be an avalanche of Android products at the show this year,” says Ben Wood, an analyst for CCS Insight. “We’re going to see more than 50 Android-powered devices at the show, including handsets from Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Dell, Motorola and HTC.
“It’s a huge opportunity for Google to take on the mobile phone industry, and Schmidt’s appearance will attract plenty of attention. Android could steal the show, and a good week for Google would heap pressure on its rivals.”
One company likely to be feeling the heat is Microsoft. It has flown in Steve Ballmer, its chief executive, to announce the launch of its new Windows Mobile 7 operating system, which will be known simply as Windows Phone.
Privately, Microsoft acknowledges that it has fallen behind in the mobile race, losing out to the likes of Apple. Publicly, it remains bullish about the popularity and usability of its mobile platform, but the launch of Windows Phone will be crucial in reviving its fortunes.
Early reports suggest there’s plenty to like about the new operating system, which will offer a solid web-browsing experience and is thought to boast a new user interface that draws on the look and feel of Microsoft’s music player, the Zune.
But whether it will be enough to unseat Apple or Android remains to be seen – Microsoft will have to battle hard with Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, if it is to win over corporate customers, and it will need to make Windows Phone available on some excellent handsets if it is to appeal more widely to consumers.
“We’ll finally get confirmation of its imminent launch, just don’t expect to see it on any devices until the latter part of this year,” says Wood. “But Microsoft are going to be promoting Windows Phone aggressively in the coming months.”
With software and hardware makers increasingly important players in the mobile industry, network operators could be forgiven for wondering where all of this innovation leaves them.
Their own “portals” are losing out to social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and the applications associated with them.
“Developers are the new royalty,” says Wood. “But operators need to ensure their 'shops’ are filled with the coolest apps.”
Operators fear becoming “dumb pipes” for the products and services of competitors, and are growing annoyed at the amount of money they are having to spend on maintaining the integrity of the 3G network.
The popularity of smartphones, and the data-hungry apps they run, means many of the exhibitors at the show will be demonstrating signal-boosting 'femtocells’ and devices that support the next-generation 4G network. That, however, is likely to be the story of next year’s show.