4G, quad-core, waterproof robots running software you've never heard of.
Mobile World Congress may sound like a nomadic version of the UN, but it's actually the mobile industry's premier get-together held annually in Barcelona. It's where new products are announced and companies make their deals, so it's as good a place as any to gauge the upcoming trends and fads in the dynamic and booming mobile industry. Here's a list of some the highlights for this writer.
Quad core processors in phones and tablets
The mobile industry is notable if only because traditional PC-focussed companies, like Intel and AMD, are relatively unimportant with processors for phones and tablets made by other companies like Nvidia based on designs from British company ARM.
A large swathe of tablets and smartphones equipped with the Nvidia Tegra 3 quad core processor were announced at Mobile World Congress, while others, like Huawei, have designed their own quad core chips. We have our doubts about the near to medium-term usefulness of quad core mobile devices – the potential for sapping the battery is obvious (although the Asus Transformer Pad Prime and upcoming ARM tech proves this doesn’t have to be the case) and there are few apps to take advantage of all that power.
Even if this changes, not all consumers will be willing to upgrade from their single and dual-core devices in this economic climate, especially if there's no compelling apps and they're locked into multi-year contracts. Quad core? Meh. Come back when you've got eight cores.
Funny shapes and sizes
All the emphasis on quad-core processors is no surprise given that makers of Windows Phone and Android phones have little to no control over the operating system, so they have to differentiate themselves with hardware specifications. The few exceptions to this rule, such as HTC and Motorola with their Android add-ons, only serve to reinforce this rule.
It's therefore no surprise that there were quirky mobile devices of various shapes and sizes in Barcelona this year from the squat LG Vu 5in tablet/phone to Sony's Bluetooth watch accessory for their Xperia NXT phones and Asus' all-singing and all-dancing PadFone.
Personally, this writer wants a smartphone in the shape of a small panda perched on his shoulder.
Steve Jobs famously dissed styluses, previously the only way of interacting with portable touchscreen devices, when he unveiled the original iPhone way back in 2007. That hasn't dissuaded some Android device manufacturers from including styluses with their new products, from the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 to the LG Vu.
Although styluses have their uses on touchscreen devices for tasks such as drawing and taking notes, we've been unconvinced by them so far. The manufacturer-included stylus apps are either mediocre or dreadful. Combine this with the dearth of third party apps, and a stylus-equipped smartphone or tablet is next to useless. This could change, at least on Android, now that there are two major manufacturers bringing out stylus-equipped devices
It's easy to become blasé about 4G when you read Twitter and Facebook updates from Americans about how their 4G/LTE phones deplete a fully charged battery in less than four hours.
4G mobile speeds can be very impressive though. Using a LG 4G demonstration phone, we saw download speeds of 35Mbit/s! This is extraordinarily fast compared to the home broadband speeds of 6Mbit/s this writer gets from his residential BT line.
It's worth bearing in mind that LG probably had access to a single dedicated 4G mini broadcast tower which was hosting just a handful of 4G devices at manufacturer stands. Still, with download speeds like this, it's easy to become enthusiastic about this next generation wireless technology which makes the contorted negotiations between the mobile networks and the Government over the necessary licenses for 4G all the more frustrating.
Mobile network companies
Whatever loyalty people had as customers of the mobile phone networks has been diminished and replaced with loyalty to their preferred brand or platform of smartphone. Some of the mobile network companies have been trying to change this though.
Telefonica, the Spanish company behind O2, announced plans to make a smartphone running a new web-based operating system from Mozilla for release later this year. Orange attempted to trump this with its plans to release one of the world's first Intel-based smartphones, also due later this year. The company also attempted to head off criticism from the EU by adjusting its data roaming plans for UK customers using smartphones abroad.
Personally, all I want is better service and cheaper contracts thanks very much.
The iPhone and iPad maker's non-presence wasn't quite as keenly felt as in previous years, but Apple's influence was distinct. From the sea of attendees equipped with iPads and Macbook laptops to the chatter about the upcoming press conference where Apple is rumoured to be launching the iPad 3, the absent Apple was still here in Barcelona in spirit.
Mobile World Congress isn't all about po-faced tablets, smartphones and chips though. There's plenty of fun stuff too, such as haptics – the force feedback technology found in games consoles and some Android tablets and smartphones. No, really.
Immersion, the big name in haptics technology, was showing off some impressive demos. Some Google Nexus S phones had their vibration motors, normally used for alerting you to new calls and messages in silent mode, specially programmed to accurately recreate the feeling of a heavy dumbbell or a pair of maracas in eerily uncanny detail. We're definitely looking forward to seeing what app developers and phone manufacturers will do with this refined technology.
Last but by no means least is Ministry of Defence spin-off company P2i. Their Aridion coating technology allows Motorola's latest smartphones and tablets to be splash proof. A more dramatic demonstration was a seemingly normal tissue coated with the Aridion technology – despite multiple dippings in a cup of water the tissue remained bone dry. Splashing water on the tissue didn't soak it, but merely cause the water droplets to rest on top of the tissue as if it were a leaf.
Truly, the most impressive thing we've seen all week at Barcelona, if not for the past several years.
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