MWC 2013: more than smartphones and tablets

Friday 1 March 2013 | 13:39 CET | Background

The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is usually the showcase to unveil the latest smartphones and tablets. However this year a number of flagship phones and devices were announced in the weeks before the world's biggest telecom trade show. This offered room to highlight trends putting 'mobile' in a broader context.

Last year Android was the driving theme at Mobile World Congress (MWC). Google's mobile operating system was well-represented this year as well, but less in the spotlight. There were two reasons for this: Google did not show up, reportedly to give more space to its hardware partners, and Android is becoming more of a commodity. With a worldwide market share around 70 percent, there is clearly less need for Google to promote Android. 

Internet of things: M2M 

Android's reduced presence offered room not only for upcoming, rival systems, such as Windows Phone and Firefox OS, but also to look more at technology developments expected to grow into new markets and revenue opportunities. This includes the Internet of Things, in which M2M and NFC play important roles. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a catch-all term for the phenomenon whereby any given object can now be connected to the internet, and as a result, connected to everything else around it. This growth market promises to be a major trend this year and for many years to come. IoT is closely linked to Big Data, another generalisation for the quickly growing quantities of data generated in the world, as well as the variety and volatility of this data. The data can be extracted from a multitude of objects, such as energy meters, cars, homes and complete cities. 

Carmaker Ford for example has been working for some time on connected cars and in 2011 introduced Ford Sync. The Ford Sync platform incorporates voice controls and connectivity, allowing drivers to use voice commands to control the audio system and manage mobile calls. Ford Sync can also read out SMS received on a phone. Another development in the auto sector is the new eCall system. Under EU law, all new cars will be equipped with this system based on mobile technology that alerts emergency services automatically in the event of an accident.  

At MWC last year Ford introduced the B-Max, at the time one of the most technologically advanced compact cars on the market. This year Ford announced a partnership with Spotify, giving Ford drives using the Sync AppLink technology access to the streaming music service in their cars. Ford said that it aims to have 3.2 million connected cars in Europe by 2015. 

Vittorio Colao, the CEO of Vodafone, also underlined that connectivity will extend beyond mobile devices. In his keynote address at MWC, he said connectivity in future will play a growing role in a large number of industries, from energy to the medical sector, logistics and transport. As an example, Colao discussed a smart car application that monitors how a person drives to help insurers determine his premiums. 

M2M is a chance for mobile operators to revamp their business model to base it more around mobile data. According to the GSMA, the industry group that organises MWC, the majority of mobile operator revenues will come from data by 2018. Voice and messaging are increasingly less important as mobile data use grows. The increasing use of LTE smartphones and tablets and the growing number of M2M connections will be important stimuli. The GSMA expects the number of mobile data connections to grow from 1.6 billion in 2012 to 5.1 billion in 2017, driven by LTE connections.

Deutsche Telekom (DT) reiterated at MWC that it plans to focus more on M2M. The German operator already has a M2M Marketplace where developers can create and offer applications. This year DT said it will work with SAP, IBM and Qualcomm on M2M services, while Vodafone announced new partners in Accenture, Digi, Intel and SAP. US operator AT&T said already in January at CES that it will develop M2M with Qualcomm and Cisco.

At MWC the M2M Multi-Operator Alliance, a cooperation platform set up by a number of mobile operators, announced the addition of Middle East operator Etisalat as its latest member. The alliance also includes KPN, NTT DoCoMo, Rogers Communications, SingTel, Telefonica, Telstra and VimpelCom. It was formed in July 2012 to address the complexity and fragmentation in the M2M market. The members are working on developing a single Sim card, standard web interface and central management platform to simplify M2M deployments. 

The GSMA, which showed off the concept of a connected city at the congress centre, also provided a number of interesting figures based on a study conducted with PwC. This report was full of the advantages of a connected world. Developed countries could realise savings of USD 400 billion on healthcare costs, m-education could result in an 8 percent reduction in early school leavers, smart metering could reduce CO2 emissions by 27 million tonnes, and intelligent transport systems could cut travel times by an average 35 minutes. Technological developments are increasingly part of social policy issues, and players in the mobile industry need to not only take the lead, but also assume their responsibility, according to the GSMA. 

Internet of things: NFC

NFC is another technology driving the expanding connectivity. NFC is usually mentioned in the same breath as mobile payments and is increasingly a feature on smartphones. But the GSMA and its partners are working hard on promoting the technology that makes short-range connections between mobile devices possible. Visitors to MWC with the NFC Badge app could use their phone to gain access to the congress site. CaixaBank, Gemalto, Telefonica and Visa Europe also cooperated to make contactless payments possible at MWC.

Away from the congress, NFC was also promoted at tourist sites in Barcelona, such as the Sagrada Familia and Picasso museum, which feature NFC interactive displays.

The GSMA estimates 300 million NFC devices will ship worldwide this year, making the technology mainstream.  

Despite the growing attention to NFC, a few major players missed this chance to promote the technology. With Google absent, NFC payment services were under-represented, and the American NFC partnership Isis, run by AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, did not offer any news.

While NFC chips are increasingly integrated in smartphones, not all manufacturers are working with the technology. Samsung, the global leader in smartphones, launched at MWC its own mobile payments service. Samsung Wallet is an app to store reservations, tickets, boarding passes, access permits and loyalty cards. Based on the time and location, the app alerts the user to travel plans, reservations or offers. The saved passes appear as a barcode on the phone's screen, which can then be scanned for access. Samsung said this system overcomes the reluctance of retailers to invest in new equipment to support NFC. Samsung is still integrating NFC in most of its new smartphones and announced a partnership with Visa to launch payment services. 

Apple, the second-largest smartphone provider after Samsung, is also anticipating the use of NFC, but in the end did not include in the iPhone.


Of course it's still all about the latest mobile devices at the Mobile World Congress. The stands of Samsung, HTC, Nokia, as well as Huawei and ZTE, were among the busiest of the show. However, the distinctiveness of smartphones is lessening, and the division of the market has been roughly fixed for about two years now. 

It's becoming increasingly clear a transition is underway to a broader view of mobility. This is resulting in innovative solutions that could create billion-dollar markets for any number of players in the mobile value chain, from system integrators to mobile providers.

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