MWC 2010: Apple is nowhere and everywhere


There was some attempted positivity from the GSM Association (GSMA) itself, in a reel of statistics about the rise of smartphones and mobile data. But Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2010 was a subdued event in comparison with previous years.

If the show is, as T-Mobile UK managing director Richard Moat suggested to Mobile News, the industry’s equivalent of Henry VIII’s ‘cloth of gold’, and a display of its power and strength, its wearer privately acknowledges there are new youth fashions to keep up with.

For MWC 2010 was, as the market presently is, defined as much by the brands not in attendance in Barcelona as the bustle on the showfloor or the talk in auditoriums. As Stephen Fry put it, collecting the GSMA award for ‘personality of the year’ on behalf of agitator-in-chief Steve Jobs, Apple is “the elephant in the room” for this industry.

The GSMA award was generous recognition in the circumstances, and did not make anyone look particularly good. Because Apple had no brand presence at the showcase at all, and yet was nowhere and everywhere. It had troops on the ground in Barcelona for a recce of the emerging landscape. But that was it; no stand, no marketing, no keynote address.

Apple leads this market forward but is prepared to take no communal role in it; distancing itself from the brands that toiled to build it in the first place. It is like it lacks respect for its elders or, worse, behaves like a mafia. Or its two fingers to the establishment are like the first jolt of punk. It depends upon your standpoint probably.

Google, of similar influence, at least appeals to incumbents with its open Android platform, although its apparent benevolence is borne of neccessity if it is to monopolise the mobile web as it does the fixed internet. Still its chief Eric Schmidt sought to make friends with the industry here.

But MWC 2010 was all about Apple, from the hastily-convened GSMA initiatives to the new ‘App Planet’ in Hall 7. Even the publicity stunt pulled by web browser firm Opera to station a couple at Barcelona airport holding signboards with Jobs’ name backfired in the grander scheme.

Opera was making a point: confronting Apple in public to request its forbidden Opera Mini application for the iPhone be passed by Apple’s censors. For most, it was another reminder Jobs is not easily inclined to be seen with the rest of the mobile market.

Which left the industry to plot alone, and together, how to work profitably in the new consumer market of mobile data that Apple has helped open up. In private, over dinner, operator staff talked about Apple dictating to their employers, early on especially, how to market and sell its devices, how to forego revenue from content, and how to cut profits from data traffic in its favour, and also how to smile through it all.

In conference rooms, the establishment worried about the burden of traffic on strained data networks from the rise in “smartphones”, and the investment they were making to keep pace with the swell. How can operators justify such sums when pricing pressure means subscription revenues are fixed, or declining, and they are largely excluded from sharing in the riches created by users’ web activity? How can airtime providers not be “dumb pipes”?

The GSMA’s announcement that 24 operators are combining to set software standards by which developers can pass applications easily through a single gateway to them for distribution is a sensible and unified move by the establishment. But it is a move forced upon it by the total power Apple and Google wield in the applications market, and the appetite for such content the pair have created in consumers.

It is notable the three manufacturers backing the scheme – LG, Samsung and Sony Ericsson – are those without any discernible foothold in the space, although each has moved to open application shops.

Nokia, meanwhile, has put great emphasis on its Ovi Store, attempting to reinvent itself as a software provider of merit in the image of Apple. Nokia’s absence from MWC – at least from the showfloor and, but for a couple of platform announcements, from journalist’s inboxes too – is a parallel narrative, and appeared to tell the tale of a manufacturer giant with little to say, or with confused strategy.

As a frame of reference, no tier-one manufacturer made any startling product headlines here. Indeed, Taiwanese maker HTC looked strongest with a trio of Android/Windows devices. The subtext to most others’ releases was a question of operating systems, and Nokia played along with detail of its forthcoming Symbian platform and a venture with Intel to combine wares in an awkwardly-titled new platform, MeeGo.

Much of the rest of the show repeated the themes of 2009, just with increased urgency or desperation. Then, the planet was in the “most synchronised global recession” it had ever seen; an opportunity for industry leaders to proclaim the game-changing role mobile could play in society.

It was the same here, except the recession has officially passed, and Vodafone chief Vittorio Colao urged regulatory authorities to quit hobbling network operators and let them make money  freely to re-invest in technology and make home life and work life better.

Mass-market smartphones, mobile broadband and machine-to-machine communications are the means to this end. Apple has showed how it is possible in the first instance, and the old industry is stirring to respond as one where it can.

As a footnote, Mobile News is aware in this world of brand obsession and SEO that this article only helps Apple’s myth-making, and justifies its moratorium on events like MWC and any kind of access by critics. The iPhone is limited, in our opinion, certainly as a business device.

Apple’s genius marketing trick is to convince the public otherwise, and to let the media magnify the effect. Which is fine for it so long as it is flying, and captures the mood.

See full Mobile World Congress 2010 feature report only in Mobile News issue 458 (March 1, 2010).

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