MWC 2009

Summary of my blog entries from MWC 2009 published at OnIslam.net

Not Sure Idou. Are You?
As in previous years, Mobile World Congress, the largest gathering of telecoms professionals in the world, began with a series of pre-launch parties. Many leading companies took the effort to attend despite the global credit crunch and in my case I took to attending two: the first by Show Stoppers and the second by Sony Ericsson.
Show casing at any event is a challenge. Show Stoppers, a common format in industry, took to introducing a selection of companies with unique technologies that are either launching or are soon to launch new product. As a heavy user of technology I have gadgets left, right and center, covering every corner of my home. Wires here, there, everywhere. In fact, those unfamiliar with the living room would be better to consult a guide before entering. It is here a solution by one of the show casing companies, Novatel Wireless, comes to hand. With a history in data cards and USB modems, they are introducing a new product they term MiFi, a solution that removes the need for having so many wires going to so many places – a welcome relief to many visitors to my home.
But as an avid gamer the product which stood out the most was the one on offer by Zeemote. Imagine, a single handheld controller connected by Bluetooth to your phone enabling you to play games such as Quake on your device. A comfortable size in the hand, the device soon to be rolled out will bring a sigh of relief to avid gamers who find fiddling around with the buttons on their phone for game play to be too far a leap from the traditional control pad.

Sony Ericsson on the other hand took the opportunity to introduce what they term to be a new revolutionary service built around a platform of exchangeable content they term MediaGo – moving content from one device to another seamlessly. This, sitting on a platform they have termed as Entertainment Unlimited (for the uninitiated, think an Apple-like proposition but without Apple.) They also introduced two new concepts: one, a phone with swappable front covers (how exactly is this new given that Nokia have had this for many years), the other a rather slim(ish) phone with full multimedia capabilities featuring amongst other things, a 12 megapixel camera, to be released later in the year. The borrowing-from-Apple theme continued as the current name for the product (which they stress is not the final product name) is ‘Idou’.
Truthfully, everyone does have to play catch up with Apple; lets face it, they are leaps and bounds ahead of us, – something quite easily observed as members of the press updated their websites and papers for release tomorrow, not on Macs rather than on Sony laptops. But worse, to try and create some degree of recognition, Sony Ericsson have used Apple’s ‘I’ label. Many will become fans of Sony Ericsson’s new offering, the content play is much needed in the marketplace. But unless they find something more by way of creativity and imagination before the product is launched, particularly in terms of a product name, most likely I will not be one of those who do the Idou.

Day 1: Better Watch Out as “Here Comes Everything”
read the title of the opening keynote speech delivered by Andy Zimmerman of Accenture. Indeed everything is on its way. From China Mobile adopting a strategy of openness, to leading device manufacturers announcing their variants on convergence. Anything and everything, if it serves a digital function, it will be networked. And if it can be networked it will be one of the trillion or so ‘specialty’ devices.
Let us put this into context. In 2005, there were 250 million personal computers, 175 million mobile phones and 30 million specialty devices. By 2015, we can expect to see 2.25 billion personal computers, 5.4 billion mobile phones and up to a trillion specialty devices. From energy to automotive to entertainment to home appliances; anything with a digital identity will be networked, even including Phillips’s iPill (a digital pill which dispenses medicine as it makes its way through your body; it can be tracked and perform a whole host of other scientific/ medical functions). This trend while driven by industry is in agreement with consumers, of whom 90% believe that in the future nearly all electrical devices will indeed be networked.
To give you a practical example, imagine a standard treadmill at your gym, integrated with new technology that allows your exercising biometrics to be transferred to your iPod so you can monitor your running. The software evaluates your personal data providing you with recommendations on how to improve your health. Already, the first generation of this exact technology has been used as a new business model, creating brand recognition, encouraging people to move to those gyms offering some of these services. Why? Because the user is now in better control of their own personal space. Budding entrepreneurs be aware, this networked future it is your chance to be creative.
But it’s not just about vision, its about delivering the impression of a vision, or in some cases, not. Two of the press events today, that by Samsung and by Microsoft (despite by ardent dislike of the latter) ran two inspiring programs.
Samsung’s environmental aspirations, driven by their contribution to an environment-friendly position, has resulted in what they term the “Blue Earth Dream”. Why blue not green as every other environmental awareness effort? According to their CEO, when we look at the Earth from space, it resembles a blue marble, hence, the Blue Earth Dream.
A phone that is solar powered, built with recycled plastics, uses eco-friendly packaging; I can’t help but be impressed at industry’s lead and their awareness of environmental responsibility. It is refreshing to see that some seek to pursue profits without necessarily damaging the planet. My only concern, and on a lighter note, is whether this phone, due for release in Q3 of this year, can be charged given how little sunshine we have in England.

Convergence

As for Microsoft, imagine the convergence of your phone, your PC and, say, your xBox – we had a wonderful demonstration which to be honest was impressive. That said, as with all things Microsoft, as I sadly discovered just last week, I wonder whether, when installing the next update designed for an enhanced user experience, or perhaps a security patch, that will in fact bring up an error box. Sure, more than 20,000 Windows applications have been developed for their mobile platform, and their new MyPhone service that allows online backup is a great idea, but it is one thing conducting a product demo (coincidently on Windows 7 beta) and quite another delivering a stress-free user experience for Joe blogs.
I do like this talk of convergence, from fixed networks, to internet networks, to the mobile networks (give it a few more years and we will be talking about people networks with embedded devices). All this talk makes me want to reach out and jump into my own personal user experience. That is something LG would like us to do, after all, their view is to ensure that our dreams are no long just ideas.
Remember how as many of us grew up, we dreamt about talking into our mobile phones, effectively placing a video call on our wrist? Today LG demonstrated this new technology, and who better to conduct the demo with than with Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft on the other end.
Innovation it seems is no longer just coming to your home; it is coming to your mobile phone which, coincidently, in a few years time, will be running your home. Marketing, on the other hand, has either run out of steam or has taken a break. LG’s new 3D interface, showcased earlier in the day, has been aptly named S-Class. With Sony Ericsson ‘copying’ Apple with the Idou (clearly everything ‘I’ belongs to Apple), and LG copying Mercedes with the S-Class (sure one is a car the other an operating system), either we have run out of words and phrases in the English language, or we are feeling the pinch of the credit crunch. Whatever the case, one thing is clear: while the telecoms sector is expected to drop 10-15% this year, ambition has not with Samsung expecting to lead in terms of sales again this year.
Like it or not, industry leaders are looking at very similar ways of bring different solutions onto the same platform: disturbingly so many of them look like bad copies of Apple’s User Interface. But what does this mean for you, me, all of us? As Andy Zimmerman rightly pointed out, with the existing large volumes of information in the marketplace, and with new types of information becoming available, information overload is just around the corner: watch out, here comes everything.

 

Day 2: The Miracle of the Bee

We are living in turbulent times, a recession, which, according to the titans of industry at the various keynote sessions, means that we will be led out of the recession through the powerhouse that is the telecoms sector. Consider that for every one mobile related job created in Africa, 100 other jobs are created as a byproduct. Of course, it is not as clear cut as this, for example, for every 1 rupee generated in income in India, 2 rupees is spent on infrastructure. Telecoms is a long term investment but its rewards can be seen far and wide.

Five years ago 1 in every 20 devices used data, today it is 1 in every 5 devices. The consumer is shifting from connecting to the internet through their PC, to connecting via their mobile phone. The recent launch of INQ1, a phone designed for the internet user experience, specifically for social networking, was a great success. Given that research from Forrester shows that 88% of people disliked their mobile internet experience, the success of the INQ1 demonstrates that it isn’t so much about how “shiny” a technology is, or how “smart” a smartphone is, rather it is about the practical ability to deliver a service offering to a client base, even in a lower cost device.

In China, the mobile phone is being used as a learning tool teaching English, a project in association with the BBC. In Thailand, Telenor are trialing what they term as the ATM SIM. In Pakistan, a Teledoctor service has been set up. This age of information is bringing about massive socio-economic change with firms being innovative and others such as Telstra taking the lead announcing a 21 Mbps mobile broadband connection, with their networking supporting 42 Mbps by end of year –  a far cry from the days of 28.8 kbps dialup. To put this in context, the UK government’s recent proposal to ensure every household was connected to at least a 2 Mbps connection pales into insignificance.

As one of the speakers rightly observed, “AT&T is big. Microsoft is big. Nokia is big. But no one company is big enough to do it alone.” This is the reality of the changing times. From ecosystems that support cross platform content and services to coming to agreement with real interconnectivity, the first of which is the agreement by leading mobile phone manufacturers to have a single, common, adapter plug. A plug you wonder? This is not just about having a single adapter that can power your Nokia, Sony Ericsson, LG, etc phone, it is about having a single standard energy saving, reducing waste, and sustaining our environment by ensuring there are less redundant adapters. By 2012 the majority of phones shipped will support a Micro USB interface. If industry can come together on one thing, they can do so on many others.

This isn’t just about big business; smaller companies have also demonstrated initiative. Take, for example, Emporia Mobile, a company that designs phones for the elderly. With a simple easy to read screen, it features very large buttons, with easy access to other features such as the alarm on the side, very much like an alarm clock of days gone by. Mobile technology is not just for the hip and savvy, rather servicing every age range – this is the key: we are all different and expect different mobile experiences.
 
It is not everyday that titans of industry gather to share their insights, views and projections, and with more than 60 government delegations present, where more than 50% of delegates are C-level or above, where better than to encourage optimism in industry at challenging economic times? Robert Conway, the CEO of the GSMA, observed that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two other words, challenge and opportunity.

Optimism should, however, be found elsewhere; a play with words can only go so far. Consider that the 300 billion Euros invested thus far in mobile broadband is said to have contributed 900 billion to GDP growth creating more than 2.1 million new jobs. 
 
For many years the way in which bees flew mystified scientists, so much so that their flight mechanics had often been said to have alluded the science of physics. It took baffled scientists 70 years to discover the mechanics of how bees fly, but without addressing the challenge, they would not have understood the miracle of the bee. Similarly, the telecoms sector faces many challenges in this recession. Improved co-operation, innovation, better services – particularly given the positive knock on effect on other sectors of the economy – should help bring the world out of recession. We do not know when this will happen, but we do know given the rate of change in this industry, it will not be anywhere near as long as it took to “discover” the miracle of the bee.
Day 3: Itsy Bitsy Spider Climbing up the Wall
Concepts are a wonderful thing. They help us imagine, encourage us to question norms, and promote change.
This year, Ericsson showcased what they describe as “The Spider”; a mobile, ultra powerful computer, fully mobile, able to project a keyboard, yet still, somehow, fit into your pocket. It may not have been anything more than a concept but it made me wonder about the future shape of our world economies, specifically, the knowledge economy.
Already actively pursued by operators such as MTS, whose understanding goes beyond just monetizing content, they are rather using the commercial pull of unique subscribers who share similar interests to command large scale discounts for that segmented consumer. The future is not just knowledge, it is knowledge of that knowledge.
Of course, if, like MTS, you have 100 million subscribers you can achieve almost anything. But unlike traditional operators who choose to define their customers in terms of pre and post paid, MTS are one of the few who have adopted a model where the individual is king leading to a point where you, the individual, control your engagement in the digital space (good to see thoughts I had echoed previously being delivered by such a large operator).
And where better than to start with the young, after all 54% of new subscribers are under the age of 24. When Koi Sora, a “book” written by a young girl on her mobile phone, became a best seller in Japan, the world should have woken up to the new mechanics of economics. And while in Japan 60% of children already have mobile phones with another 23% wanting them, the fact that they are actually illegal to sell to children in Venezuela hasn’t stopped the country having the second highest rate of child mobile phone users in South America.
We are, of course, a social creation. With 24% of children saying they bought their mobiles because one of their friends had a mobile phone, it is clear that we are who we are. Perhaps this is the wisdom behind MTS’s approach where one slide presented by their director of strategic marketing, Garrett Johnston, showed how previously operators ran their business such that their customers revolved around them. He pointed out that it should in fact be the other way round, operators partnering with content, service and application providers, taking an “offering” to the customer. This is for me, my life, in my world.
Did you know that the bills for 2.34 million customers would use as much paper as 12,707 “standard sized” trees? Is it any wonder then that NTT Docomo, through their mobile phone recycling program, have, since 1998, recycled more than 65 million mobiles. Even better, income generated from this recycling program has gone to planting trees such that today a network of NTT Docomo forests are dotted around Japan. It seems, as with almost everything else coming out of Japan, the rest of the world is still playing catch up.

Earlier today I met with Mohammed Chalib, the first Muslim politician in the Catalan Parliament. Between his broken English and my near non-existent Arabic, French, Spanish and Catalan (all languages in which he was fluent in), we discussed how in parallel to the efforts made at MWC (and by the GSMA), that two meetings in recent days revolving around the issue of mobile technology were being discussed in his parliament. It seems that politicians are developing the will to encourage and support mobile technology even further, trying to understand its benefits to individuals as well as society in general.
But is this awareness any surprise given how the strap line of the leading Japanese operator, NTT Docomo, reads, “We connect people to people, and people to their world. We open the door to the future”? True, in recent days I have heard so many claims by so many companies, but this is one which I actually believe.
This is the real message of technology. Sure, it is an enabling tool, sure it helps us to communicate over great distances almost instantly, but without a wider, holistic approach that embodies environmental responsibility and supports social opportunity, it remains functional instead of cultural. A survey conducted in Japan discovered that more children were familiar with e-mail and SMS than voice calls.
As more and more of our youth take a bigger share of our digital world, the offerings of our world will change to reflect their needs and wants. If a product or brand does not support a particular cause, or pollutes the environment, or conducts any number of ills, be sure that the children will talk to their friends about it encouraging one another to boycott or support that good or service. Imagine any corporation guilty of such ills and loosing the support of these young people as they grow into adults.
Life for us adults, it seems, has become a complex web of associations, but technology will remove these barriers, enabling transparency. To me, this is one of the truer definitions of democracy. To others, like it or not, the future is coming and perhaps the best way for you to handle this would be in another concept product, “The Harmonizer”, also from Ericsson. A foldable eye-mask with earphones, it “helps you to escape the everyday.”
Unfortunately for you, the embedded phone means you will never be out of touch. It seems that technology will ensure that you can close your eyes, holding your hands over them only for so long.
Day 4: $32 Billion Mobile Entertainment
$32 billion is the estimated value of mobile entertainment in all its glory. Who better to lead this revolution than the generation of virtual social networks such as MySpace who have approximately 130 million user identities, signing up more than 250,000 users a day? With 40% of Americans with access to the internet having a MySpace account, the demographic doesn’t seem to matter so much as 40% of American mothers having an account – business it seems is business.
This phenomenal growth, matched to entertainment, is providing the ideal launching pad with musicians such as Sean Kingston having used the power of the social community to launch their careers.
If the internet is moving from the West to the East, mobile technology, services and applications are moving from the East to the West. We are riding on the tail coats of the Japanese whose higher data speeds have spearheaded them ahead of the rest of us. The rest of the world isn’t so far behind, with one of the biggest announcements this year being that Verizon, the American carrier, will be moving towards an LTE network with much of industry following. Voice carried on GSM is at 9.6Kbps, on HSDPA it is 384 Kbps, but on LTE it is 50 Mbps. To you, me, and the average consumer, these numbers do not mean much; suffice to say, information will “fly around” very, very fast! And, of course, LTE is a common standard, meaning that in a few years time we will not have to worry about which phone we need for which country; it will be one phone for the world.
Mobile TV is on its way. Already in France, more than a million users access the service. In the general realm of entertainment Olaf Swantee from Orange observed a major policy switch to push non-voice based services to the mobile user: TV, video, games, social networking and user generated content. With smartphone users able to access these data options, he observed that creative methods needed to be found such that the 90% of users who do not have a such devices can also have access to such content. Having analyzed more than 300 million customer clusters, the challenge, it seems, is to get your data on your terms, with the vast majority watching mobile TV, doing so at home, at 8 pm, in the heart of what used to be primetime TV. Times are changing.
Yet with change and success we still find many pockets of modesty. Kevin Spacy was the star guest for this year’s MoFilm entertainment slot, a program for the promotion of short films designed around the mobile platform. It is not often you hear a Hollywood star utter words such as “I have so much more to learn” or “culture unites us”; at least, it is not everyday such words are spoken with sincerity. It is refreshing to see that technology is independent to values, yet proof that in the hands of those with good values, the knock-on positive effects can go a long way.
Speaking of which, general content available on the internet is often dealt a blow as many struggle to use the features available. At lunch I sat alongside a fellow from Kinoma who have developed a media player. He showed me in less than 15 seconds how to access content through their software. I’ve been using my Nokia N810 tablet for a few weeks now and still I haven’t cracked it! Discovery of content is just as important as having content “put there”. While Kinoma’s solution is currently designed for Windows Mobile and Palm (supporting others later) despite the hefty $30 price tag, if you want media on the move without having to fiddle around, this may be the best $30 you have spent.
From a broadcasters perspective, the mobile platform has come by storm. The BBC reports that in the past few months, the mobile phone version of the BBC iplayer – a service that allows you to watch the TV shows aired over the past seven days – accounted for 3% of downloads, which when considering 35 million requests to view in November 2008, is a staggering number.
But it is not just popular content but user-to-user interaction with that content. In Norway, the web version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire allows users to play live, as the TV show is being aired. In place of the “ask the audience” option, the user from home is able to ask all other users at home. While this service is to be rolled onto the mobile platform shortly, this degree of interaction has the ability to change how we as communities use mobile technology to effect opportunities. In the future, when the authentication process is more secure, users may be able to vote in their countries elections simply by pressing a button on their phone.
With the exception of Blyk, a mobile operator funded purely by advertising designed for young people, mobile advertising may be an undefined space today. The announcement between the GSMA and the operators where they have agreed to collect all traffic, from all users, in an anonymous manner to determine customer metrics and profiles, will push the mechanism of mobile advertising to the next level. Do not be surprised if in a few years time your phone calls will be free with each call being prefixed with a 3 second advert from a sponsor of your call.

On a personal level, this year’s MWC has shown that many companies understand the need to broaden their horizons, with quite a few trying to piggy back off the apple of their eye, Apple – be it in concept, design, application stores, phone icons or other. The next nut to crack is the monetization of content with the improved delivery of mobile advertising. As the volume of content pushed through the channel moves to the next level with more adopting high data services such a mobile TV, the future for LTE seems set. Let us, however, ensure that we view technology as an aid and not a replacement for human interaction. To this end I echo the words of Kevin Spacey as I too have so much more to learn. Till next year.

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