One of the only exciting growth stories left in the global economy will turn a new page in Barcelona this week. While old-economy stalwarts such as the World Economic Forum and the Detroit Auto Show reflected broad economic trends of doom and stagnation this year, you can safely expect big headlines, booming crowds and bullish start-ups at the Mobile World Congress, the annual get-together for the mobile phone industry.
Although a slowing economy means less money will be spent on expensive new handsets or risky experimental investments, the telecommunications industry will fare better than most in the coming year. The industry is changing. Laptop computers are starting to use mobile networks for internet access and mobile phones are getting smarter and easier to use for web browsing and e-mail. Everyone from software companies to websites, media businesses and hardware makers are looking at the mobile market space and licking their lips.
The biggest story to watch out for this week will be Android, the open-source mobile phone operating system built by the Open Handset Alliance, a Google-led grouping of technology and telecoms companies. There are only a handful of operating systems that can power a mobile phone, and the emergence of a free, open system with the backing of great engineering companies is good news. As phones become more like computers, the ability to customise the devices with new software grows in importance.
With a high-profile backer in Google, Android is starting in a good position, but so far only one phone has been launched using the system, the relatively lacklustre T-Mobile G1, produced by Taiwan's HTC. But the smart money says that a number of new Android-powered phones will be launched this week in Barcelona, from both established and upstart manufacturers. Most interesting is the persistent rumour that Motorola will launch its comeback device at Mobile World. Using the Android system, the rumoured device is seen by many as Motorola's last chance to claw its way back into the mobile market.
Motorola was once the world's second-largest phone maker thanks to its sleek Razr handset. But since then it has tumbled to number five in the market, and its handset division is bleeding money so fast that the parent company is considering spinning it off into a new business. The company was never known for its ability to make a great mobile operating system, and using Android should let it focus on its strengths in design, engineering and manufacturing.
Steve Ballmer, the chief executive at Microsoft, will attend the congress, which company watchers say is a clear sign that something big will be announced. As Motorola struggles for its life, Microsoft is expected to launch a major new push into the mobile sector, with talk of an upgraded version of its Windows Mobile operating system and a new online store to distribute applications designed for its devices.
Most interesting, and therefore most questionable, is speculation that the company will launch an online platform that will integrate and synchronise mobile phones with desktop and laptop computers and websites, similar to Apple's MobileMe service for the iPhone. It seems the spectre of the iPhone is looming over everything at Mobile World this year. Companies are working out how to capitalise on its success, emulate it, or - most ambitiously - beat it.
In the third category is Palm, the company best known for its Palm Pilot personal digital assistants (PDAs) and Treo mobile phones. The company will launch the Palm Pre at the congress, and the phone has been seen so far as one of the best attempts yet to take on Apple in the touch-screen mobile market. Along with the launch will be the unveiling of Palm's new mobile operating system, webOS. The Palm operating system has been in use and continuing development for 13 years, making it the most established piece of software designed for hand-held computing. But Palm are doing away with the old, and announced that the Palm OS would cease production, with all new products to come loaded with its new effort.
With at least three new mobile operating systems to be getting attention at Mobile World, the software designers building programs for each system will have their hands full. The iPhone and its revolutionary App Store system for distributing and selling mobile software have put mobile application development at the forefront of the software business. Now, Palm, Microsoft and Google, among others, are looking to replicate the success. The question is, will one platform become as dominant on the mobile as Windows is on the desktop?
Many mobile application developers have the luxury of not needing to pick a horse in that race. An increasing amount of mobile services is almost entirely web-based, using the universal standards of the internet rather than the proprietary systems found in a phone. In such cases, all that needs to be done is build a "shell" that connects the phone to the internet, where a web-based system does the heavy lifting.
Mobile application developers will be out in force at this week's congress, the hopeful beneficiaries of what most onlookers say will be the next great boom in technology. While most businesses will spend the week plotting for survival, they will be having the party of their lives in Barcelona. email@example.com