Barcelona welcomes 'smartphones for the masses'

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It is nearly that time of year - when anyone who is anyone in the mobile world catches a flight to Barcelona to show their face at the Mobile World Congress.

Austerity will be in the air this year and not just because of Spain's continuing economic crisis.

Cheaper smartphones are likely to be on show as device makers look to new markets in the developing world to expand their presence.

Powering these handsets will be new cheaper operating systems on show from the likes of Firefox and Ubuntu.

People go to the Mobile World Congress - which runs from Sunday to Thursday - for a lot of things, but the number one draw is handsets.

"It is the most prolific consumer device on the planet, everyone has an interest," said Ben Wood, principle analyst at CCS Insight.

This year though he is not sure we will witness the flagship, signature phone launches that used to be a daily curtain-raiser for the show.

"Apple has changed all that," he said.

Always preferring to plough its own furrow and a famous no-show at the Mobile World Congress, Apple has started a trend for bespoke launches.

Those handsets that are on offer are likely to be more modest than the iPhone.

"They are not all going to be high-end £500 phones. This year, the Mobile World Congress will be all about smartphones for the masses," said Mr Wood.

Newcomers
Huawei Ascend smartphones Huawei may show off an eight-core handset

Currently there are around 1.25 billion smartphones in people's pockets around the world and that is expected to rise to 1.8 billion this year.

Michael O'Hara, chief marketing officer for the GSMA, which runs the show, thinks there will still be room for some impressive specs.

"We expect to see a number of device launches at the show and this will include those with 5 inch screens, LTE, quad cores and 13 megapixel cameras," he said.

The battle for mobile software is still being waged between Apple and Google and in the past Google has brought its trademark image to MWC with a huge stand filled with Androids, slides and juice bars.

Some think its presence this year may be more subdued.

Man on the phone in Sierra Leone Mobile phone makers will be looking to new markets for cheaper smartphones

"I don't think Google needs to have a major presence because Android is almost omnipresent because of its sheer success. It is in phones, tablets, TVs, watches, media streamers. The platform has developed a life of its own," said Mr Wood.

For smaller software developers, such as Mozilla, MWC is an opportunity to compete for the sought after third spot behind Apple and Android.

Mozilla is likely to use the conference to deliver on its promise last year to offer a web-based operating system.

Chinese handset makers will also be a force to reckon with at this year's MWC - with brands such as Lenovo and Huawei slated as ones to watch.

Huawei has already started sending out press invites for an event the day before MWC kicks off, with rumours suggesting it may show off an eight-core smartphone.

While such news may send the geekier delegates running into the Med to cool off, it is unlikely to impress everyone.

"I'm not sure how you make consumers care about how many processors a phone has," said Mr Wood.

For him the more important chip story at MWC will be about what the graphic processor can do, as more and more people use their smartphones and tablets for gaming.

Mobile city
Graphic showing the Connected City at Mobile World Congress The Connected City aims to show how mobile is infiltrating many areas of life

Last year, MWC built a connected house to show off some of the ways that mobile is transforming daily life. This year, it has set its ambitions even higher with a connected city.

"It comes with apartments, a car showroom, an office block, a town hall, a department store, a hotel and a cafe," said Mr O'Hara.

"MWC used to be a mobile show but what we are seeing now is it is bringing together people from every industry. Mobile is going to transform a lot of these industries," he added.

The connected cars that dominated CES in Las Vegas are likely to drive their way to Barcelona as will connected bicycles.

The keynote list is also eclectic. The vice chairman of General Motors will speak at the conference alongside the chief executive of the American Heart Association, who will be talking about the role of mobile in monitoring health.

In times of austerity, MWC remains hugely important to Barcelona - bringing in an estimated 300m euros ($395; £260m), of additional revenue.

"We have a lot of support from the city and are very important to the whole country because we put Spain at the centre of the mobile world every February," said Mr O'Hara.

The show will be out of town this year - at a new arena which promises to challenge the stamina of delegates.

With the new location a whopping 1.2km (0.7 miles) from end to end, visitors may find themselves shopping for new shoes, as well as new phones, by the end of the week.

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