Blog: My analysis of Mobile World Congress 09

Jonathan Morris
February 19, 2009

The line-up of announcements didn’t really blow anyone away this year, not least because most of the information was already known about before the doors had even opened, however it wasn’t all bad even if we are suffering a recession and everyone is seemingly tightening their belts.

Sony Ericsson couldn’t even wait until the first day to announce its latest entrants; the W995 and the 12-megapixel Idou (prounounced, ‘I-do’) smartphone that’s many months from completion. Didn’t they do this with the X1 announcement last year?

The Idou isn’t the final name, of course, so Sony Ericsson can now re-announce it when it’s ready (nearer the end of the year) and get more media attention. Clever. The model I saw actually looked pretty finished, and offers high-resolution video, imaging and music. It also shows of the new Symbian Foundation user interface. Almost. One reason the Idou isn’t ready for release is because it will be one of the first handsets to use the new user interface – but that isn’t finished yet. Eagle-eyed members of the press would have noticed that the prototype uses Nokia’s existing Series 60 5th Edition user interface instead.

Nokia kicked off the many press conferences, at a venue so far away from Fira Barcelona that I nearly had to advance my watch by an hour upon arrival. It might have been a clever way of ensuring delegates couldn’t make the next conference by HTC, although it backfired when many people left early to board special shuttle buses laid on by the Taiwanese smartphone manufacturer. These people would have missed Nokia’s announcement of two new E-series devices, plans to save the world with its environmental strategy (more of that later) and the all-new Ovi store.

Lack of Communicat-ion

The E75 is no Communicator replacement, while the E55 uses a variant of RIM’s SureType keyboard. Nokia calls it a ‘compact QWERTY keyboard’, but whether you can get on with it or not, we can at least say it’s the slimmest Series 60 smartphone in the Nokia range for now – but only just. A mere millimetre separates it from the highly regarded E71, which has a preferable full-QWERTY keyboard. Nokia says the E55 has enough power for a month of standby, but if someone can go without using it for even a quarter of the time, they don’t even need a phone.

The Ovi Store isn’t any ordinary app store, although that may be all it is used as by most normal people. Nokia is going big on location based services, believing that we all want to know exactly where all of our friends are at any given time. Even Google is getting in on the game with Google Latitude, but surely everyone wants and need some level of privacy?

For those that don’t set their status as ‘away’ almost permanently, Nokia users will be able to see and contact friends whenever they’re nearby and therefore must fancy meeting up. With Ovi Store, you can now nose in on what they’re downloading to their phone too. If your mate has bought a cool new application, surely you’ll want it too? And, if downloading applications, themes and videos doesn’t float your boat, the location aware Ovi Store can also see where you are and recommend apps to suit your immediate needs. This would mean my N85 would have known before me that I needed to download an English to Catalan translation tool before I got in a cab and tried to have a conversation about what Mobile World Congress was all about.

Nokia had three other announcements, but they didn’t mention them at the conference. Two new navigation-focused handsets and, the following day, the N86 – Nokia’s first 8-megapixel cameraphone. The N86 wasn’t much of a surprise because Nokia announced it earlier in Singapore, presumably thinking that nobody living in the Internet generation would notice. We did.

The N86 is an impressive proposition, even if it is little more than a sexier-looking Samsung i8510 released many months later. The music control keys from the N85 and N96 now double up as camera controls (using the same LED colour change as used on many Sony Ericsson Cyber-shot cameraphones) and it has a lens that is designed to work better in low lighting conditions. It should go on sale very soon too, which isn’t surprising considering it’s almost the same as the N85 – bar the addition of an N96-like kick-stand and an electronic compass to aid personal navigation.

It’s a kind of Magic

Unbeknown at the time, HTC was going to wait until the Tuesday to announce the HTC Magic (Google phone) with Vodafone, so the conference was used to unveil two unimaginatively named sequels to existing models. The Touch Diamond2 and the Touch Pro2 will appeal to hardcore HTC fans, or those who live and breathe Windows Mobile, and the high-resolution displays are certainly crisp looking, but they weren’t major announcements. More a case of ‘We have to release something new at MWC’ announcements.

It was the job of Vodafone to announce the Magic (known by many as the ‘G2′) to give HTC proper attention. More or less the T-Mobile G1 without a keyboard, it’s a slimmer Android phone that relies solely on an on-screen keyboard for text input. Although it is being built in black and white versions, UK users will have to make do with white only – at least until the inevitable ‘limited edition’ comes along. In terms of Android announcements, that was it – but plenty of others were hinting the obvious; that they’re going to release Android handsets at some point in the future. As they say, no **** Sherlock.

Following the HTC announcement came Samsung’s conference. Now, it’s at this point that I should make it clear that Samsung had taken me out to Barcelona. I was therefore obliged to attend their conference, have interviews with Samsung staff and hang out with them for organised post-show entertainment each evening. I’ve been in the game too long to sell out for anything less than a large briefcase filled with non-sequential fifty-pound notes though, so getting positive editorial was most certainly not a given just because my credit card would remain unused for a few days.

Thank goodness, then, Samsung didn’t put me in an awkward position to be diplomatic by announcing a range of lacklustre handsets that I’d have to try and sound slightly excited about. The Tocco Ultra Edition and Blue Earth ‘green’ phone were already announced beforehand, but the theme of the event was touch and three more touchscreen handsets were unveiled, including the Omnia HD and two music phones in the ‘BEAT’ category. The BEAT models are supposedly aimed at people bored of the Walkman brand, but they’re definitely aimed at a very youthful demographic – including the type that will love the loud stereo speakers for annoying fellow bus passengers. I’m not convinced the association with Bang & Olufsen fits in with its target audience, but this is just the beginning of Samsung’s attempt to get credibility in the music space. If done correctly, it will give some choice to people wanting something other than Walkman or XpressMusic brands.

Highly Defined

The highlight was, without doubt, the Omnia HD. In fact, I’d almost go as far as to say it was the most exciting handset shown at MWC (and I said that without being bribed). Like the i8510 Innov8 launched last autumn, the Omnia HD (aka i8910) uses Nokia’s Series 60 user interface. However, as a touchscreen device it uses the 5th Edition that powers the Nokia 5800 and N97. Sitting on top, however, is Samsung’s TouchWIZ interface that offers up widgets and other personalisation. It’s fast too, although I was unable to ascertain what processor is behind it.

The unique feature of the Omnia HD is HD video (720p) capture and playback. It also has an 8-megapixel camera and a very large AM-OLED capacitive touchscreen that looks amazing and is very responsive. Rumour has it that the next update to S60 5th Edition will also introduce many new gesture controls, ala Palm, for allowing easier use of the applications, but until then Samsung was demonstrating its ability to send HD content to a TV wirelessly, using DNLA. Everything looked grand, although I couldn’t help but notice some artefacts brought on by heavy compression of the Disney film Wall-E.

Strong projections for 2009

Samsung also showed off two handsets with integrated projectors, but it’s still early days for this technology. The latest model ships with a whopping great 1400mAh battery but that is still only enough power to project video for 1hr 20mins. Not only is this too short for watching a whole movie, but it also means no more power for the phone. Of course, everyone has to start somewhere.

Now you can’t talk about Samsung without mentioning their main rivals. LG got loads of attention with its announcement of the Arena before MWC began, but this was the first opportunity to see one in the flesh. While the Omnia HD has all the features, the Arena is arguably the sexier looking model. Why? Well, if we are all to believe that the iPhone is the be-all and end-all of touchscreen user interfaces, then copying it is surely a recipe for success, no?

I should probably say that it isn’t totally identical once you go beyond the standby screen, but after playing with the new 3D interface for a few minutes it is still hard to see how it isn’t a total rip-off. Even some of the icons are the same, although LG might have changed the position of a few pixels to keep the lawyers at bay. The point is, at first glance it will look like an iPhone and that could well pay off big for LG. The new look user interface isn’t just reserved for the Arena either, as LG has also put the S-Class 3D interface on its GM730 Windows Mobile phone.

Samsung regards itself as platform agnostic, supporting multiple platforms (hence the Omnia being Windows Mobile and the HD favouring Symbian), while LG has announced that it is using Windows Mobile as its preferred smartphone platform. Of course, this does mean it could still use ‘non-preferred’ operating systems, but the company said it would be releasing many more Windows powered devices in 2009. That can’t leave much room for other platforms.

Seeing the light

LG also attempted to steal some of the thunder from Samsung’s Touch Ultra Edition. The GD900 is, like the latest Tocco, a touchscreen phone with a slide-out transparent keypad for people that want a touchscreen but also like buttons. The keypad looks incredibly cool when the white LEDs light it up, but the transparent back (which reveals the battery and other innards) is likely to be redesigned so it doesn’t look like some cheap see-through gadget from the early 1990s.

Now, this is the point where I can write something that will give conspiracy theorists something to ponder upon. The Tocco Ultra Edition has a 4×3 slide-out keypad, the same as the GD900. Below the screen are three more buttons; call, end and back-up. The centre button may look like a select button, but you select things by pressing the relevant icon on the screen. Correcting mistakes is also done by pressing an on-screen clear button, not a dedicated button (for which there isn’t one). Now, here’s where it gets controversial. The GD900 has the exact same layout. Is this the coincidence of the year, a simple case of great minds thinking alike or something else? That should get people thinking about something other than 9/11.

We’re watching you

If LG and Samsung are so aware of what they’re each doing, why isn’t Samsung releasing a watch phone? LG used MWC to officially announce its 3G version, after it was first shown at the CES in January, including a demonstration video conference with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. The Watch Phone isn’t a concept either, because as Vodafone was announcing own-brand handsets and the HTC Magic, Orange was telling the world it will get the GD910 Watch Phone before the end of the year. Wannabe Dick Tracy’s should start saving up now, as the phone isn’t likely to be that cheap and production will be rather limited.

Last year, Acer purchased E-TEN, and so this year was the time for announcing four new smartphones. The Tempo range consists of all Windows-Mobile powered devices, with different form factors and designs. Meanwhile, i-Mate was showing off its ruggedised 810-F smartphone that can cope with the bump and grind of daily working life. It seems there’s still life in the current version of Windows Mobile, but Microsoft did at least finally confirm what we already knew; there’s a new version coming. V6.5 is more finger-friendly, but is some way off the Windows Mobile 7 we were hoping for. Microsoft says this could be well over a year away, but a new home screen and an improved version Internet Explorer should keep people going for a while.

Better news is that some of the new devices announced will be upgradeable (sadly, anyone owning an older 6.1 device will almost certainly not be able to upgrade; as 6.5 requires more ROM space than older smartphones). Microsoft also used the show to announce a new application store (as did with a store for Java mobile phone users) and ‘My Phone’ that is rather like Apple’s Mobile Me service. It lets you back up and restore contacts via the web, share files and also integrate with Windows Live.

Environmental concerns

A lot of the talk at MWC was of saving the planet, or surviving the economic downturn (Samsung is one of the few to be convinced that they’ll actually expand and gain more marketshare). Green phones from LG and Samsung joined similar announcements in 2008 from Nokia and Sony Ericsson. Everyone, it seems, is building Blue Peter phones made from stickyback plastic and egg cartons, or something. Nokia decided this year not to concentrate on a token-gesture handset but look at its entire business operation to look at ways of cutting down its carbon footprint.

The GSM Association also used the event to announce, for the second time, that the industry is going to do its part collectively. A totally non-sexy announcement came out that all of the major manufacturers will move to a standardised charging system by January 1st 2012. In actual fact, it’s already happening and has been since the industry agreed, in principle, to drop proprietary connectors in favour of micro-USB back in 2007. All that has happened now is a firm deadline has been set.

Nevertheless, it stole a lot of the headlines because something so simple has real benefits not only to the environment (a massive reduction in chargers being produced and sold with new phones, because you’ll already have one) but to the end-user that can now carry one single charger for a range of handsets, or know that any other charger lying around will work. Nokia, Samsung and RIM is already introducing the agreed micro-USB socket on new devices, and hopefully the others aren’t going to keep us waiting up to three years to comply.

Solar powered handsets are all very good (assuming you wish to keep a phone out on show for a few hours to recharge it) but the industry could already start reducing the size of the packaging, reducing the size of the manuals and using on-screen tutorials and guides, and selling the power supply separately. This would make more of a difference than selling a single ‘eco-phone’ that may or may not appeal to the general public.

Sweaty palms of anticipation

Finally, I was hoping for Palm to put us all out of our misery and announce the 3G Pre, and it all but happened. They had a stand and people were walking around using Pre’s, but there was no official announcement to say when it would go on sale here or who would be selling it. Now, Vodafone is the only network to have had any sort of business relationship with Palm in the last few years, so it seemed inevitable that they would have said something – but perhaps they didn’t want to take attention away from announcing the second Google Phone. It seems we’ll have to wait a bit longer for an official announcement, but I’m still banking on it being Vodafone. It’s a fairly safe bet, but stranger things have happened.

All in all, it was a mixed bag when it came to new handsets for 2009 – at least those shown so far. Some good, some average and some ‘we had to release something to justify being here’. What seems obvious is that MWC is possibly a bit too early in the year to show off the best things, so we can hopefully see some really awesome new products beign announced in the months ahead. These are essential if the general buzz of the mobile industry is to be maintained, tough times or not. Most people I speak to would give up food for a week to buy a cool new phone, so this isn’t the time to be holding back.

PS. If you’re wondering what my personal favourites of MWC were; well, the Samsung Omnia HD and Sony Ericsson’s Idou – but that’s because deep down I’m a Symbian fan at heart. However, the competition has upped the ante and Microsoft and Palm are about to get things really hotting up in the months ahead. It’s why I love working in this industry and why you spent the time reading my blog!


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