fira_events2This is a guest post by Hugh Griffiths on the themes that emerged from the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

After last year’s unseasonably cold weather the sun came out in Barcelona this year, with more than 85,000 visitors setting a new attendance record. With so much consumer electronics on show around the floors the event is starting to look rather like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held in Las Vegas in January. At the same time, this demonstrates that the industry is now well and truly main stream, and the mood this year was generally very positive.

The big themes for this year were new devices, particularly wearables, Machine to Machine/The Internet of Things, Mobile Money/Payments, the challenges faced by the MNOs and the Internet players, while the old world and the new world continue to try and find effective ways of working with one another. Finally, all around the show there were demonstrations of in-car capability.

The ITU expects the number of cell phone accounts to rise from 6 billion now to 7.3 billion by the end of 2014, compared with a global population of 7 billion. Meanwhile 4G network launches are pressing ahead across the globe. The GSMA reminded us that 264 networks were launched commercially across 101 countries worldwide between December 2009 and January 2014, and almost as many networks are expected to launch over the next 5 years. 400m 4G connections are expected worldwide by the end of 2014 and 2.5bn by 2020.

Open APIs & SDKs were in abundance. This open approach would have been unthinkable five or six years ago. Now, however, the industry realises that individual companies do not have all the answers. It recognises that customers or third party developers can and want to customise their end user experiences, whilst being able to utilise the exisiting core functionality. Indeed this Mobile World Congress itself was themed by the GSMA as ‘Creating What’s Next’.

The Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg attended the conference for the first time and gave a keynote address. He defended the $19bn valuation of What’sApp, claiming that the business would be ‘huge’. This comment followed a keynote session from the WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum, who announced that they would introduce a voice service in the second quarter of 2014, initially for Android and iPhone devices, before addressing Windows and Nokia. He claims it will use the ‘least amount’ of bandwidth.

Of course, there are already millions of users of VOIP through Skype and Viber and it remains to be seen what the real impact of the introduction of voice by WhatsApp will be. Ronan Dunne, the CEO of O2 UK, questioned the valuation of the purchase in the Evening Standard. His view: WhatsApp users were of little value, since the vast majority of contract customers had unlimited text bundles.

But once again there was no sign of Apple. I recalled a sage comment made by a very senior exec in the industry last year: ‘if Apple start to experience problems they may also find their friends are thin on the ground in this industry’.

Cars were everywhere, although generally the functionality within them was uninspiring. The availability of a WLAN and car telemetry was seen as the most useful use case. The most interesting was the Ford research vehicle, which will be used to develop automated driving technologies. It employs 4 LiDAR (Light Detecting And Ranging) sensors to scan the surrounding environment (up to a 70m radius), using infrared, and calculating the distance between the vehicle and other objects at the rate of 2.5million measurements per second. This technology also enables the Google driverless car.

And of course, there was a plethora of mobile money/payments solutions providers at the event. GSMA research says that regulatory reforms are contributing to a surge in the take up of mobile money services, with the number of active users growing from 37million in 2012 to 61milllion in 2013. The latest review of the overall payments and banking landscape is captured by First Partner and their view for 2014 will be made available shortly.

Hugh Griffiths is a Director of the media and telecoms consultancy Digital Potential. A full copy of his report from Barcelona is available from Digital Potential via hughgriffiths[at] image at the top of this post is courtesy of the GSMA, and is used with thanks.

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