Barcelona, Spain (AFP) Feb 15, 2010
The ranks of cell phone subscribers will swell to five billion people this year thanks to the growth of smartphones in developed nations and mobile services in poor nations, a UN agency said Monday.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) also said the number of mobile broadband subscriptions would exceed one billion this year after reaching 600 million in 2009.
"Even during an economic crisis, we have seen no drop in the demand for communications services," ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure said in a statement at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, the industry's biggest trade show.
The number of mobile subscribers had reached 4.6 billion people last year.
"I am confident that we will continue to see a rapid uptake in mobile cellular services in particular in 2010, with many more people using their phones to access the Internet," Toure said
In the developing world, the growth has been driven by the use of phones for mobile banking and health services, the ITU said.
"Good examples include sending reminder messages to patient's phones when they have a medical appointment, or need a pre-natal check-up," Toure said.
"Or using SMS messages to deliver instructions on when and how to take complex medication such as anti-retrovirals or vaccines," he said, adding that such uses can save millions of dollars and lives.
People with no bank accounts but mobile subscriptions are also increasingly able to do financial transactions with their phones in developing countries, he said.
Mobile industry gathers in Barcelona for big show
South Korean mobile phone maker Samsung and Swedish-Japanese rival Sony Ericsson started the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, a day early, unveiling late Sunday new smartphones as they seek to boost their shares of this fast-growing segment of the industry.
But all eyes will be on Microsoft on Monday when its chief executive, Steve Ballmer, hosts a press conference amid speculation that the US software giant will unveil its new Windows operating system for smartphones.
Attendance at the congress is expected to be about the same as last year but lower than the 55,000 people who attended the event in February 2008, prior to the crisis, according to GSMA, the industry group that organises the congress.
More than 47,000 people and 1,300 exhibitors are expected to attend the event this year, it said.
The Mobile World Congress comes as the industry begins to navigate away from a difficult period for the sector.
Global shipments of handsets had been falling every quarter since the third quarter of 2008, when the global financial crisis erupted, according to market research firm Strategy Analytics.
But shipments surged by 10 percent in the last three months of 2009, "signaling an end to the industry's year-long recession," Strategy Analytics said in a January 29 report.
Smartphones alone grew even faster in the fourth quarter, jumping 30 percent.
Sony Ericsson and Samsung, the world's second biggest mobile phone maker behind Nokia, have small slices of the smartphone segment, which is dominated by Nokia, iPhone-maker Apple and BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion (RIM).
Samsung unveiled its new touch-screen handset, the Samsung Wave, on Sunday, as part of its plans to triple its smartphone sales to 18 million units this year.
"This is a new era, the smartphone era," JK Shin, the head of Samsung's Electronics mobile business, said at a launch party for the Wave.
"Samsung is committed to making the smartphone era available for everyone. We are committed to making the smartphone era a true democracy for billions of people on all continents in all corners of the world," Shin said.
Meanwhile, Sony Ericsson unveiled three new smartphones as it seeks to overcome a "turbulent" year, said company chief Bert Nordberg.
While handsets have grabbed the headlines in Barcelona in the past, analysts say this year's event might focus more on operating systems such as Google's Android and applications that can be downloaded into smartphones.
"I think it's probably going to be a slightly different show in terms of the focus, as far as historically it has been a lot about hardware," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at information technology research firm Gartner.
"In the last couple of years you started to see more around services and definitely this year applications will have a huge part in the theme," she said.
The newest, and less traditional, members of the mobile phone industry are also expected to make big headlines.
Google chief executive Eric Schmidt will attend the conference for the first time and deliver an address Tuesday that will be broadcast live online.
The Internet giant has made a splash in the mobile phone industry with its Android operating system, launched in 2007 in a direct challenge to Microsoft.
Google also entered the hardware business last month when it launched its own smartphone, Nexus One.
Microsoft eyes mobile comeback with new platform
Chief executive Steve Ballmer presented the Windows Phone 7 Series at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, ending months of speculation about what Microsoft had in store for the industry's biggest trade show.
"We're taking a step, I think a big step," Ballmer said, adding that devices fitted with the new software would be available in time for the winter holiday shopping season. "I'm enthusiastic about the direction that we're heading."
"We hope 7 is our lucky number," he said.
Microsoft has been up against strong competition from Internet giant Google's Android, as both newcomers fight for a share of a market dominated by the Blackberry and Apple's iPhone.
"The primary goal of Windows Mobile 7 is clearly to address Microsoft's shortcomings in the consumer mobile market," said Charles Golvin, analyst at research firm Forrester.
"All plaudits for their persistence aside, in my view this is their final chance to get it right," Golvin said.
Google has made a splash in the mobile phone industry with its Android operating system, launched in 2007, and phone makers have announced that they would release several more smartphones with this platform this year.
Smartphones fitted with Microsoft's operating system had 7.9 percent market share in the third quarter of last year, a drop from 11.1 percent in the same period in 2008, according to research group Gartner.
In the meantime its rivals grew: BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion saw its market share increase to 20.8 percent and Apple's iPhone rose to 17.1 percent, according to Gartner.
And Android phones took 3.5 percent of the market in just a few months of existence.
"There is no doubt that this phone market is A, highly competitive, B, highly dymanic and C, super exciting," Ballmer said.
"And there is no question in our minds as we go back a couple of years that we needed... to do some things that were out of the box, clearly differentiated from our past," he said.
In its upgrade, Microsoft completely changed the platform's interface and installed the capabilities of its Zune MP3 player, which has only been available in the United States.
The system includes six "hubs" that group services by themes, such as a "people" inbox that includes emails, text messages and updates from social network activities, or an Xbox Live icon for online games.
Microsoft-powered touch-screen phones will be rolled out later this year in partnership with several device makers including Qualcomm, Samsung and LG, as well as operators from AT&T to T-Mobile and Vodafone, the company said.
But Nicolas Petit, director of Microsoft's mobile division in France, said the software titan had no intention of following its rivals and creating its own phone.
"It is not in our DNA to build hardware," he told AFP. "We have partners who do that better than us."
Google entered the hardware business last month when it launched its own smartphone, Nexus One, in a challenge against another big rival, Apple, which never attends the Mobile World Congress.
In a signal of Google's ambitions to become a leader in the mobile phone industry, chief executive Eric Schmidt will address the Barcelona event for the first time on Tuesday.
Mobile operating systems are the lifeblood of the increasingly popular smartphones, which allows users to surf the Internet, check and send emails, play music, videos and games, and take pictures.
Global shipments of smartphones surged by 30 percent in the last quarter of 2009, according to Strategy Analytics. By comparison, overall handset sales rose by 10 percent in the same period.
In an indication of the growing use of phones with Internet capabilities, the International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency, said Monday that the number of mobile broadband subscriptions would exceed one billion this year after reaching 600 million in 2009.
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