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Mobile phone showcase reveals trends to watch

by Staff Writers
Barcelona, Spain (AFP) Feb 19, 2009
The mobile phone industry's biggest trade show wrapped up Thursday after four days that delivered exciting news for technophiles, average phone users and even environmentalists.

Mobile World Congress brought its usual flurry of demonstrations and announcements that revealed the trends that will shape the industry in the years ahead.

"The thing that made the biggest noise this year was application stores," Jeremy Green, head mobile analyst at research consultancy Ovum, told AFP. "You weren't there if you didn't have an application store."

This avalanche was triggered by US technology group Apple, which succeeded in being the most talked about company here even though, as usual, it did not attend.

Apple launched its "AppStore" last year, which enables users of the top-selling iPhone to download extra applications that personalise the handset and increase its usefulness.

"Apple wasn't here, but there was a big shadow," said Roberta Cozza, an analyst for research group Gartner. "You heard people talking about the iPhone all the time."

What many hope is that in a few years time the iPhone comes to be seen as a watershed moment when consumers realised they could use a mobile phone like a portable computer.

This will drive demand for Internet services, which will open up the mobile advertising market, but also applications for services such as maps, news, games or social networking.

With Apple out in front, the industry is playing catch up. Handset manufacturer Nokia, operators T-Mobile, Orange and Telefonica, and software group Microsoft all announced their versions of the "AppStore" this week.

"While a couple of years ago, the 'wow factor' of a device was the hardware features and the technology ... now it is the applications and the services," added Cozza. "Apple has shown the world what can be done on a smart phone."

Most of the new phones showcased by other manufacturers here mimicked the iPhones touch-screen controls and the marketing emphasised the ease-of-use.

The event was also important to test the mood of an industry that has begun to show the strains of the global financial crisis, with manufacturers Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and Alcatel-Lucent shedding staff.

"It's an industry in defiance against a recession," said analyst Nick Lane from British telecom consultancy Direct2 Mobile. "Everyone I spoke to was saying infrastructure spending won't be reduced and consumer spend won't be down too much.

A number of chief executives pleaded for government action to encourage investment in networks, saying the mobile telecom industry could help pull countries out of recession.

Elsewhere, there was good news for anyone with a surplus of old phone chargers in his or her home.

Leading manufacturers announced an initiative to produce a standard charger that would fit all phones by 2012 in a step set to reduce waste and increase convenience.

"I have a drawer full of old chargers," joked actor Kevin Spacey on Thursday, hailing the news during a presentation of mobile phone film awards Mofilm here.

"It's funny that it's taken 20 years to get there," noted Ovum analyst Green.

Solar power is also set to make a key breakthrough this year, with several phones on their way to the market.

Chinese group ZTE unveiled the world's first low-cost solar-powered mobile phone targeted at the world's poor on Wednesday, which is to go on sale in June for under 40 dollars (32 euros).

South Korean manufacturer Samsung also unveiled its solar-powered "Blue Earth" phone that is to go on sale later this year aimed at eco-conscious consumers in the developed world.

With demand for sophisticated handsets in the developed world set to soar according to analysts, the market is drawing in new entrants from the computer world.

Taiwan-based computer manufacturer Acer revealed its first range of phones here, following compatriot Asus and Japan's Toshiba into the business.

Also in the handset market, there was progress for Internet giant Google, which is seeking to establish its software Android as a standard for mobile phone operating systems.

Taiwan's HTC unveiled an Android phone called the HTC Magic and Chinese manufacturer Huawei showcased its first mobile phone based on the technology, meaning there are at least three "Google" phones now developed.

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