It’s easy to get distracted at Mobile World Congress: There are some 60,000 people here in Barcelona, hundreds of booths, some product announcements, and – oh, right – an entire conference of panels and keynotes going on in the background.
Much of what’s here will be obsolete or forgotten by next year – that fast-moving evolution is part of the beauty of mobile. I think back to a year ago, when there was a housing bubble-like level of excitement and investment in Android tablets, hopeful anticipation for the HP TouchPad, and some mysterious thing that RIM was showing called the BlackBerry PlayBook in its dark cave of a booth. A year later, they’re all flops.
But there are five things at Mobile World Congress that actually matter.
1. Android Is Everywhere
Seriously. Everywhere you look, that little green robot is looking back at you. A walk through the expo halls and Android is here, there, everywhere. Phones. Tablets. Waterproof! Apps. “Solutions.” Carrier stuff. Customization. Cameras. Cases. China. It’s everywhere.
This is, of course, great news for Google. It may still not be near Apple in terms of design, app ecosystem, hardware/software integration, etc. But the point is that operators, handset makers, and basically everyone here but Microsoft is talking nonstop about Android. The Android model – spray it everywhere – is working. Well done.
2. Windows Phone 7: Not So Everywhere
Beyond the Microsoft/Windows Phone stand and Nokia’s palatial booth up the hill, there doesn’t seem to be much excitement around Windows Phone at the show. (Microsoft is previewing Windows 8 today, but that’s different.)
There’s been some on-stage posturing about how Windows Phone could someday be a strong no. 3 platform after Apple and Google. But most companies still seem to heavily favor Android – you need to look to find the Windows phones at MWC.
By this time next year, we’ll probably know if Windows Phone 7/8 (?) is a real contender, or if it’s toast.
(By the way, I just caught up with Nokia’s EVP of mobile phones, Mary McDowell, and asked her why Nokia was bothering to announce a Symbian phone at MWC, the one with the headline-grabbing 41-megapixel camera. She says that it was the only way to get the camera on the market quickly, and that in many markets, Symbian-based smartphones are still their top offerings. So it isn’t as pointless as I’d initially thought.)
3. Apple Is Missing, But Not Missed
It doesn’t go unnoticed that the most important company in the mobile industry doesn’t have a formal, physical presence at the mobile industry’s most important show. But that’s how Apple rolls. Instead, Apple tweaks the competition, as it did yesterday, upstaging Google chairman Eric Schmidt by sending out iPad 3 event invitations just as Schmidt’s MWC keynote started.
Anyway, no Apple booth, no keynote, and… no surprise there. Besides, what would Apple get out of it? It’s not going to share the stage for product announcements, and it doesn’t need to show off last year’s devices.
Perhaps Apple quietly has some people here doing meetings, research, etc., as it reportedly did at CES last month. Or maybe not.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of other companies representing Apple’s influence here: The app developers, mobile media companies, accessory companies, etc.
4. China’s Huawei And ZTE Are In It To Win It
Be afraid of China’s two giant telecom companies. Their presence at the show is impossible to miss: Both have giant booths, Huawei seems to have an extra bunker for itself, and ZTE has paid to put its name and logo on every body at the show, via the badge and lanyard. And they are coming to battle with everyone in the business.
Huawei plans to triple its smartphone shipments ths year and ZTE plans to double its shipments, according to a Jefferies research note today. The analysts also cite “strong demand” from the U.S. and Europe. If you’ve never heard of these companies before, you’re going to soon.
5. The Show Itself Is Thriving And A Huge Success
The place is packed and everyone I’ve talked to is having a great time.
Mobile World Congress is a proper trade show – most people are here to do business, network, discuss deals, meet with press, and socialize, much more than they’re here to attend keynotes or panels, or even launch products.
The booths are big but the real work is in the meeting rooms, and at dinners and parties. “Mobile World Congress really runs from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m.,” one mobile startup CEO told me this week.
There are some real problems with the venue – it’s old, the bathrooms are disgusting, there is the threat of pickpocket crime – but it’s Barcelona and it’s beautiful outside. If anything, people are skeptical about the move planned to a newer facility next year, which is not as close to the nightlife/hotel district.