Nearly 50,000 people converged on Barcelona last week to grab a slice of the multi-billion dollar pie that is the mobile phone industry. Entry prices for the annual Mobile World Congress (MWC) are far too high for anyone who simply wants to gawp at the latest models - £530 to £4,300 depending on access rights.
Just about every device at MWC showed the influence of Apple's iPhone, with its sliding screens and multi-touch interface. Apple was conspicuously absent, as if it did not want to tarnish its image by consorting in public with the infrastructure providers, network engineers and operators that had made its latest cash-cow possible.
They may lack the Apple style with their dark suits and acronym-speak, but they are changing the world and they know it. Mobile phones, for better or for worse, are reaching places that have never seen fixed phones, and will give hundreds of millions of people their first online experience.
Manoj Kohli, chief executive of Indian operator Bharti Airtel, said that there are an astonishing 520 million mobile subscribers in India, a figure growing at 19 per cent a year. This means nearly five times as many phone screens as televisions in a country where just few years back you would be hard put to make a local call.
With markets like that up for grabs, the competition is feverish. Microsoft was back in the fray at MWC with the launch of the Windows Phone 7 operating system, which drops the PC Windows look-and-feel in favour of, yes, multi-touch and sliding screens.
Inevitably Windows Phone 7 looked something of a me-too product, but it would be a mistake to write Microsoft off: remember that Apple was first to mass-market (though not to invent) the desktop graphical interface, only to be spectacularly outsold by latecomer Windows.
Mobiles are a very different industry, but Microsoft can hardly lose. Its installed base will ensure healthy, if not dominant, sales of Windows Phone 7, and its back-end systems will be throwing services at mobile platforms of all flavours.
Smartphones, and tablets using the same processors, could actually widen the use of Windows. They are easily powerful enough to act as terminals fronting Windows applications running on remote servers, as in the Nirvana architecture proposed by OK Labs and Citrix. A similar setup is easily viable in a home or office Wi-Fi link to a Windows machine using the Remote Desktop Protocol.
A count of the new handsets at MWC, suggests that the Google-backed Android operating system is sweeping the world, but these are early days in the OS war. Samsung launched a new OS called Bada on a handset called Wave. It looked good, and more handsets using Bada are promised for this year.
These platforms show that if the iPhone is cool it is not exclusively so. But the OS proliferation is becoming a problem because application developers have too many targets to aim at. This is one reason Nokia and Intel announced the merger of their development platforms into a new Linux-based one called MeeGo. The other reason, of course, is to stave off the threat from Android.
Fifteen mobile operators, including Telefónica, ATT and Orange, have set up an organisation called the Wholesale Applications Community, hoping to provide developers with a single entry point to market with open standards to help create applications across a variety of platforms.
The operators, noting that Apple's App Store logged its three billionth download last month, also want a slice of the action. They have a point in saying that it is their huge investments and flat-fee mobile broadband charges that have turned handsets into a viable content delivery platform, a global market for apps, music, video, news and other content.
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