Barcelona's Mobile World Congress to have tapas-style variety

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Barcelona will be serving up its sixth Mobile World Congress (MWC) this week and it promises as much variety as the tapas bars that the city is more famed for.

Operating systems, content, devices and even chips will all be on the menu as the Spanish city plays host to more than 50,000 visitors.

The guest list will also be an eclectic mix as mobile old-timers rub shoulders with high-profile executives from outside the sector.

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, Google's Eric Schmidt as well Twitter's Dick Costolo and Carol Bartz from Yahoo will all be there.

OS battle

Image caption,
Nokia and Microsoft are enjoying a new partnership

It represents the ongoing collision between the net and mobile communication, as smartphones get ever more popular, smarter and more powerful.

Mobile analysis firm CCS: Insight predicts that smartphones will exceed the number of PCs in the world by 2013.

It could happen even sooner if Gartner's figures prove correct. It found that smartphones are already being shipped in greater number than PCs - 100.9 million in the fourth quarter of 2010 compared to 92 million PCs.

The operating systems that power them are likely to take centre stage in Barcelona as the battle between Google, Apple and Microsoft gears up.

That battle was made much more interesting by the Nokia, Microsoft partnership announced last week.

It will see Nokia turn to Windows as its primary operating system for smartphones, abandoning the ailing Symbian platform.

But Android is still likely to take the MWC crown as unofficial operating system king - for this year at least.

Image caption,
The availability of services such as Twitter have driven smartphone uptake

At past Mobile World Congresses, there has been a huge variety of different handsets on show but these days all phones look the same, thinks Ben Wood, an analyst with CCS: Insight.

"Ask a child to draw a mobile phone and most will draw the same thing - a black rectangle with a touch screen," he said.

To offset this growing homogenisation of design, some operators will be offering quirky new features to help them stand out from the crowd.

LG will be showing off its much-leaked 3D handset, the first mobile phone designed to view 3D content without the need for glasses.

Gamers will be keen to see if there is confirmation of the increasingly loud rumours about Sony Ericsson's Android-powered games phone the Xperia Play, dubbed the Playstation phone.

And to illustrate just how powerful the chips that run smartphones are becoming, there will be plenty of mobile add-ons, such as Motorola's laptop dock companion for its Atrix handset, which will allow the phone to run as a computer using a laptop shell, dubbed a webtop.

With smartphones pushing the limits on capacity-squeezed networks, there will be myriad companies suggesting way to make them more efficient.

There will be plenty of excitement around 4G, with lots of operators promising next-generation service even though many will not technically be 4G.

The air will be thick with acronyms such as LTE (Long Term Evolution), Wimax and HSPA+, and for those interested in the nitty gritty, a big debate around which of these technologies are actually 4G.

"The marketing around LTE and other flavours has become increasingly cheeky but consumers don't really care what it is called," said Steve Hartley, an analyst with Ovum.

LTE finally coming to market will be one of MWC's key trends, and the fact that the US market has embraced it will make for interesting column-inches about Europe playing catch-up.

Increasingly mobile operators will look to differentiate themselves by prioritising or offering free access to popular services such as Facebook and YouTube, experts think.

"Google could make a payment to an operator if they so wished, which in turn would allow the operator to market their device as one offering the best experience of YouTube," said Mr Hartley.

Every Mobile World Congress has a buzzword - more often than not an acronym - and this year it is likely to be NFC - Near Field Communication.

NFC is the technology that allows mobile phones to be turned into payment devices, replacing credit cards, loyalty cards, travel cards and other vouchers.

"All the applications that use a physical card can one day or another be transferred onto the mobile phone," said Phillippe Vallee, from Gemalto, an NFC technology firm.

Paying for tapas may be about to get a lot easier.