A lot that was expected to happen at Mobile World Congress -- the cellular industry's premier showcase -- didn't. And that's interesting.
Whatever your expectations, this year's Mobile World Congress -- the premier showcase for the global cellular industry -- was noteworthy for undermining them.
One thing did emerge with more clarity: an ever-more sophisticated integration of mobile devices and users with online data, applications and services.
Android, the Google-fueled open source operating system expected to reshape the mobile market, was largely missing in action. Only a couple of Android phones were announced at the Barcelona, Spain event, which organizers said was expected to draw 50,000 attendees.
Windows Mobile, the proprietary OS expected (or hoped by some) to be doomed to irrelevance, was the operating system of choice for several high-profile smartphone introductions that supported either the current 6.1 or newly announced 6.5 release.
People expected more attempts at "iPhone Killers." Instead, the phone named best of show was an anti-iPhone: the low-cost INQ 1 Social Mobile, actually unveiled last November, boasts a UI integrated with Web applications and services.
LTE was expected to be…well, exciting. But despite the live network demonstrations around Barcelona, and Verizon Wireless' promise to have the technology up and running somewhere in the United States by year-end, LTE was a 4G yawn. "We suspect that a workable deployment model for limited spectrum in the robustly propagating 700MHz range will be long in development," wrote Erick Kainer, an analyst with ThinkEquitity, assessing the LTE news.
As for Android, HTC announced its Magic smartphone running the open source OS. And Adobe Systems announced that Flash Player 10 will be available for Android (and other phone platforms) later this year, allowing handsets to render Flash animation and video on Websites.
The rest of the Android news was low-level stuff of interest to platform developers. Nvidia allied with the Open Handset Alliance to support the Android stack on its upcoming Tegra chips, designed to create advanced graphics on smartphones while minimizing power use. And Texas Instruments talked up an Android developer kit for its OMAP3 silicon.
Android was such a non-presence,that it led Daniel Eran Dilger, publisher of Roughly Drafted Magazine to wonder "Did Microsoft kill Android at Mobile World Congress 2009?" His conclusion: pretty nearly.
The open source platform that got attention: the LiMo Foundation's Linux-based stack. LG Electronics, Panasonic and Samsung all demonstrated mobile handsets using it.
Windows Mobile resurgent?
By contrast, Microsoft's proprietary Windows Mobile was the platform of choice for a number of high-profile smartphones unveiled at the show, and Microsoft announced a significant upgrade: Version 6.5 with a new look to the UI, and the inclusion of IE Mobile 6, its first full-fledged Web browser for the mobile OS. (Check out our slideshow of the new look.)
LG Electronics plans to make Windows Mobile (now rebranded to just "Windows") its primary operating system. The company plans to boost its volume of available Windows by 10-fold this year, and has 26 new models on tap for 2012 alone.
At MWC, LG announced the LG-GM730, with LG's 3-D S-Class UI, due out in mid 2009 with the current Windows Mobile 6.1, and an updated version in the second half of the year, with the just-announced Windows Mobile 6.5.
Other Windows phones included HTC Touch Diamond 2 and Touch Pro 2 (HTC created the first U.S. Android phone, T-Mobile's G1), and the recently announced Toshiba TG01.
But the phone that caught official attention at the Congress, winning "Best Mobile Handset or Device" from the judges, was INQ Mobile's INQ1 Social Mobile, first announced last November and now going into expanded global deployment.
INQ is a unit of Hutchinson Whampoa, created to bring to market a very low-cost 3G phone that nevertheless would give users a superior Web experience. It's designed to do that by integrating into the phone's user interface a range of Web applications: Facebook, Skype, Windows Messenger, Last.fm. It supports push e-mail and interfaces with Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino. The intent was to make social networking and Web access much faster, smoother, and more intuitive.
The proprietary operating system incorporates Qualcomm's Java-based BREW application development framework.
In the United Kingdom, the phone costs about $115, or comes free with a monthly service contract of about $21. Comparable smartphones are closer to $200 when subsidized by carriers, and often require one- or two-year service contracts. A CNET Reviews story quoted Frank Meehan, INQ's CEO, on the company's strategy: "Most manufacturers are spending billions of dollars going after the iPhone with limited success. But 80% of the market can't afford an iPhone and the corresponding service plan."
You can get the INQ phone in the United Kingdom, Australia and Ireland via a mobile operator called 3. It will be available in Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and Hong Kong over the next month, and in the United States by years-end.
Integration: the new "wow-factor"
INQ isn't alone in integrating the handset user interface with the applications available on the mobile Web. Microsoft took another step with its news of the Windows Marketplace for Mobile, an application store that will come installed on all future Windows Mobile 6.5 devices. It also announced the free My Phone service, which offers Web-based automatic backup and synchronization of phone data and content.
Nokia expanded the breadth of its own online service offerings, branded Ovi, by announcing the Ovi Store, which will be accessible to vast numbers of S40 and S60 Nokia devices. Going beyond Apple's current App Store, the Ovi service will be able to key applications to a user's new location, and let users see what their contacts and friends have been downloading from the store. The store will open in May in nine countries.
In a related move, Nokia is working with Skype to create a VoIP client for Nokia's just announced, top of the line, S60-based N97 mobile computer. The client will work with the device's address book, just as it does on the INQ1, to make placing calls to Skype users as simple as making a cell call. The software will be available in the third quarter.
That approach suggests a direction for enterprise mobile development. Many of the handsets and operating systems are aimed at consumers. But the need for what could be called "intuitive integration" is even more pressing on the enterprise side, coupled with stringent security requirements. This year's MWC, almost in spite of itself, has given an outline of a promising new emphasis in enterprise mobile computing.