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Mobile Tapas In Barcelona

Mobile World Congress is an enormous show that cuts across the entire mobile ecosystem, from the die casters to the equipment manufacturers to the mobile operators to the handset makers to a diverse roster of content providers (there's even a developer garage), and they are all here again in force in Barcelona, home to the colorful architecture of Gaudi and an insanely endless arsenal of appetizers called tapas, good for arresting every taste bud and an apt metaphor for Mobile World Congress.

Mobile World Congress is an enormous show that cuts across the entire mobile ecosystem, from the die casters to the equipment manufacturers to the mobile operators to the handset makers to a diverse roster of content providers (there's even a developer garage), and they are all here again in force in Barcelona, home to the colorful architecture of Gaudi and an insanely endless arsenal of appetizers called tapas, good for arresting every taste bud and an apt metaphor for Mobile World Congress.First Course, Phones Hall 8 is infamous for its eye candy. Nokia, LG, Sony-Ericsson, Samsung, Motorola, BlackBerry, all have megabooths filled with glass displays worthy of high-end fashion malls, complete with Prada models (LG) in skimpy outfits, booming house music, and . . . phones, which you can get to by squeezing your way past the throngs in aisles that, well, only Prada models could walk easily through.

This year there were plenty of new phone releases, prefaced with unnecessarily dramatic press conferences (Samsung, Sony-Ericsson), but most of the real noise had been made in the months before (Apple and Research In Motion, just in the course of business; Palm with its Pre at CES). The big buzz in Barcelona was supposed to be the onslaught of Android phones, which didn't materialize save for Huawei's surprising entrance into the handset market, and, frankly, all it did was announce that it was going to announce a phone. Unstrung's Dan Jones captured it here.

Eventually, Vodafone and HTC jointly announced (in a strangely ultra-secret news conference) the HTC Magic, available exclusively on Vodafone in the U.K., Spain, Germany, and France. Eric Zeman reports on it here.

Sony-Ericsson made the most (and earliest) noise with its Idou (merely a temporary code name), its first attempt to rid itself of the schizophrenic branding (Cybershot, Walkman). This one pushes the outer edges of phone/entertainment device with a large (3.5-inch), high-resolution screen that can view video in 16-by-9, and includes a hard-to-believe 12.1-megapixel camera. Here's a short video of the phone.

But there were plenty of other announcements that highlight the struggle to create defining and differentiating phone features. Samsung had its own 8-megapixel camera offering and a green-friendly phone called Blue Earth, with parts made of recycled bottles, a solar panel for charging in the sun, and a built-in pedometer. Its Omnia HD included HD (720p) video recording. HTC announced phones based on Microsoft's new Windows Mobile 6.5, and Acer also unveiled a slew of Windows Mobile phones. Nokia had its own 8-megapixel camera phone.

For a more complete look at all of these offerings, and then some, Eric Zeman (Phonescoop and InformationWeek blogger) and Harry McCracken (Technologizer) were the winners for bleery-eyed, back-to-back meeting bloggers during day one's endless phone announcements.

It's also instructive to see what the chipmakers bring out so you can see some of the next developments. Broadcom was demonstrating an Android reference model that included an HD camcorder, a video player and a 12-megapixel camera; it also included a mobile TV receiver, among other features.

Plea: Spend More Money Despite reports of decent attendance at Mobile World Congress, it feels a bit lighter than the past two years (you can't tell it from the overcrowded press room, or Hall 8's Day 2 crowd). But with more than 50,000 people here, according to GSMA, it's no slouch. Mobile growth screams for capital, whether we're talking about extending the Internet to the nether-reaches of the developing world or the insatiable quest for higher mobile data rates. Nobody wants to see the spending stop, and it seems everyone is worried about it.

The GSM Association trotted out a mighty powerful group of mobile operators (including Wang Jianzhou, chairman and CEO of exploding Mobile China) and pundits (Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University) to plead with governments and the world to increase and enhance spectrum licenses. It was a crowded and exceedingly warm room that made me drowsy, but I wrote this down: for every 10% of mobile broadband penetration, there is a corresponding rise of .6% GDP. Hard to swallow, but GSMA CEO Rob Conway said that China's GDP will ultimately (a nice, nebulous time frame) grow $211 billion from its release of new spectrum. Message taken: Spend more money, please.

But Conway made an even stronger appeal. He said that the 700-MHz spectrum is necessary for 4G/LTE. Without it, he implied, LTE is doomed. Next message taken: We need to move quickly to reclaim the 700-MHz spectrum being abandoned by broadcasters who are moving from analog to digital; this is the so-called Digital Dividend.

Coming from a completely different angle, The World Bank also was here with its global microfinance center, CGAP, an organization dedicated to helping the poor and developing parts of the world. Mark Pickens, microfinance analyst for CGAP, spent some time talking with me about some of the latest trends in mobile microfinance and I'll have more on that later, including our video interview.

Finally, there seems to be little slowdown in 4G investment among the carriers. Although Vodafone seems to be adamant about Evolution HSPA (or HSPA +), talking about speeds of 20 Mpbs and higher, with predictions for 40 Mbps in two years, its joint venture partner Verizon is expected to announce its equipment partners for LTE this week.

Operators in Hong Kong (CSL) and Australia (Telstra) also talked about their plans to race to faster speeds by exploiting the expanding capacity of HSPA. They talked about speeds of 20 Mbps now, but predicted we will see upwards of 100 Mbps in the next couple of years. Some may position this as an economy-induced retreat from 4G capital investment, but the companies tout it as a way to get to 4G speeds faster than the competition.

Meanwhile, AT&T is moving even faster than expected (mid-2011) on its LTE offering, according to my colleague Michelle Donegan's piece here.

Get Your Femto On Femto cells have long been part of the Mobile World Congress lexicon, but still we talk. It's simple, really. It's been difficult enough on the home front to get consumers used to wireless access points (and configuring them and making them work with cable modems). Even in the enterprise, getting IT acceptance of wireless infrastructure took years of rogue users sneaking it all in under IT's noses. And now we want to bring in cell-based equipment to do the same thing, only using 3G services. Right.

Still, a number of promising companies are on display here, including ridiculously named Ubiquisys, IP Access, and some of the bigger infrastructure companies. Michelle Donegan also reported that T-Mobile is readying a true Femto roll out in Germany.

Flashy Flash At these shows, it's difficult to separate the flash from the substance, but Adobe's big Flash announcements qualified as both (sorry for the pun), largely because it is the one remaining hurdle to rich media phone experiences. In reading some of the blogs and commentaries on this, there's a bit more controversy than I thought -- many believe that Flash will sap memory resources, drain power, or crash browsers (or all of the above). (Read some of the comments posted here.) On the other hand, being able to watch video and consume interactive features is just part of the evolving phone-as-computing platform journey. So let's get on with it.

The announcement came in two parts: First, a distributable Flash Lite run time that developers can use to target the latest version of Flash Lite over the air. Second, Flash support for several platforms, including Palm Pre, Android, Windows Mobile and Symbian. Plenty have pointed out the most obvious missing platform, the iPhone, but Adobe officials told me a couple of weeks ago to go speak to Mr. Jobs about that. I'll get right on that. Personally, I'm more curious about BlackBerry support, and I intend to ask Adobe about that, and more later this week.

You can read Ed Hansberry's piece on this here.

Meanwhile, I am meeting with LSI later today to find out more about its Multicore Media Processor, which promises -- among other things -- to do real-time transcoding on the fly, so that the end device doesn't have to worry about running multiple video codecs.

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