I attended the 2012 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The following are my personal observations and extrapolations from the show based on my conversations with operators, customer meetings, colleagues and walking the floor.
1. LTE- Where’s the Party? – Last year was the year of LTE. Vendors were flouting it and operators were demonstrating how it would change the world. Even Verizon Wireless (an operator which never shows up at these things) had a big display showcasing LTE. I think that this year the cold reality is kicking in – now that we have built it (or building it) will people actually use it? What is the killer app? Will all of that projected mobile video really go over LTE or will it be accessed from Wi-Fi powered tablets? And of course, the elephant in the room – what will Apple do? Will it bless the industry with its next iPads and iPhones running LTE? That one decision will probably shape the payback curve more than anything. The growing consensus may be that LTE makes sense but it is going to be a much slower burn than the vendors and technology prophets trumpeted.
2. Wi-Fi Comes In From the Cold – The new buzz was definitely Wi-Fi. A technology that might at best have been found lurking in the far corners of a remote hall at past MWCs is now being viewed as something that operators really need to understand and embrace. Of particular interest is how it can help mobile operators offload traffic from their congested networks. However, the discussion is rapidly evolving with many operators asking what are the business models for Wi-Fi. They are also beginning to explore how they not only integrate Wi-Fi into their network architectures but also into their overall business model and value proposition.
3. Mobile Payments… Again and Again – Once again, more promise and more solutions for providing mobile payments. While these solutions hold promise, many think that the future of mobile payments will now be very different than we know it. Look for the banks and the credit card companies to finally come out on top, doing what they do best. Using their tried and true systems and business ecosystems, to collect and transfer money.
4. Mobile Cloud – More than Just Words – Last year mobile cloud seemed to be mentioned just in passing – the concatenation of 2 hot tech words. This year there was definitely more meat on the bone. Key note presentations explained how it was the future, not just of mobility, but of everything. Vendors proudly displayed mobile cloud solutions and showed off how they were really much more than just apps. Judging by the packed room of people who came to attend the mobile cloud panel, in which I participated, mobile cloud has definitely come of age and people are looking for answers… and opportunities.
5. Dumb Pipe or Smart Pipe? .. that is the Question - Where the wireline industry grappled with this question at the turn of the century, this is now the issue of the decade for the mobile industry. Operators are increasingly fearing becoming the mobile equivalent of the dumb pipe. Many of the talks and discussions focused on explaining why mobile operators are critical to the mobile ecosystem and on how their networks are more than just conduits for Facebook and Youtube.
6. Not a Good Place for a Regulator – I wouldn’t want to wander around the convention floor with the word “regulator” emblazoned on my badge. They were numerous swipes and references from participants to the challenges that unsympathetic regulators presented on spectrum, pricing, caps and of course, net-neutrality.
7. Pricing and Policy to the Rescue – Cisco’s graph of exponential mobile data growth has become de rigueur in key note presentations. Often combined with a revenue line trending in the opposite direction to show that operators are struggling to justify further network investments. There was talk of the end of unlimited data plans and paying for what you use, like electricity (SPs as a utility?), capping heavy users and slowing down certain traffic and usage behaviors. AT&T made an interesting announcement around creating the “1-800” number for data, with the content provider paying for the access to be included with the application. Is that like buying a TV with the electricity included in the selling price? At the same time Vonage and other OTTs were launching services to make free calls and messaging over mobile networks.
8. M2M - The Rise of the Machines – As usual, operators and vendors were showcasing lots of M2M solutions and, of course, including the ever present mobile interaction with vending machines. But there seems to finally be enough of a critical mass growing to tip M2M into the mainstream. Mobile operators are starting to aggressively push this as a partial solution to the issues identified above – filling LTE networks and smarter pipes. And, machines are much more grateful than their human customers whose true loyalty increasingly lies with the OTT providers.
9. What’s The New Thing? – 3-D televisions and gaming devices have gone. The world of devices seems to have converged to iPhone and iPad clones. There was an interesting revival of the old Palm Pilot with Samsung’s Galaxy Note, that lets you write and draw with a stylus taking from a hiding place in the device (everything old is new again). Cool, but I am not sure if it will ever become mainstream? For a company given up as dead, Nokia had an exciting booth with lots of buzz. And it’s new Windows based device is nice and very different than the clones. But knocking Apple off its perch will be one monumental task?
10. Small Cells – Is Femto Bigger than Small? – Femto vendors last year seemed to be relegated to the dark corners of the floor and never spoken of. This year they have now been officially re-labeled “small cells.” But unlike the femto cells of old, small cells seem to be about data, less about voice, and providing access in public locations as a fill-in strategy for macro cell networks, rather than being located in the corner of someone’s basement. Also, unlike femto, mobile operators are very interested in small cells, realizing that they are reaching the limits on placement of macro cell towers and need small cells to increase coverage and capacity.
A year is an eternity in the mobile industry. Much has changed from last year and no doubt the industry will be transformed by the time we meet in next year in Barcelona. But, I think that Mobile World Congress this year gave us a good peek into how this future might evolve.
Further industry research, insights and perspectives can be found at my blog The Connected Life