[By Justin Spratt] The official party for the Mobile World Congress 2010 in Barcelona was at Montjuic Palace, hosted by British comedian Stephen Fry.
His opening line was that the cellular industry confab was like a sex party for him because he was such a lover of gadgets.
He admitted to owning 17 phones, 14 of which he actually bought himself.
Gadgets, he confessed, were his erotica.
The event was a nice counterpoint to the ructions earlier in the day, when Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao launched a broadside against Web search giant Google. He suggested Google was too powerful and that antitrust regulators should be paying attention.
A few hours later, Google CEO Eric Schmidt took to the same stage to counter the attack, calling Colao a friend and saying he would make time to understand the Vodafone boss’s concerns.
At question time, after Schmidt had given his keynote, there were also questions from an audience member who suggested Google was “stealing business” from the operators.
Schmidt’s reply was terse, focused on semantics and lacked substance.
I reckon the fight between operators and Google will come to a head this year under the banner of “Net neutrality”.
The operators argue that they have paid for the pipes that connect all these Web (fixed and mobile) services and that the companies providing them — Google is the poster boy among them – make huge profits, then they, the operators, should be able to get a share in the riches by charging toll fees for certain services.
The problem is this goes against the raison d’être of the Internet. Operators have always charged interconnection fees to others to reach their networks, but Internet providers have always allowed counterparts – including competitors – to traverse their networks free of charge.
When Berners-Lee first conceived of the World Wide Web, it was about globally accessible “uniform resource identifiers” to make information ubiquitous. So the moral integrity of the Internet is at stake here.
One thing the Net neutrality camp has in its favour — apart from Google being its main protagonist — is that US President Barack Obama strongly supports the idea.
But this being a mobile technology conference, super-cool new technology and gadgets constantly distracted people’s attention from the serious debates.
Fourth-generation mobile technology, in the form of Long-Term Evolution, or LTE, seems to be finally gaining traction, if the number of exhibitors punting it was anything to go by.
However, not everyone was convinced the move to LTE would be good for the mobile industry, particularly for operators. One executive from Hewlett-Packard was overheard saying that “spending US$20bn on an upgrade is difficult [for operators]to justify on all-you-can-eat data plans”.
The problem for operators is how they can increase revenues when it’s the likes of Google that will be earning the money from Internet services delivered on the new networks.
Operators are terrified of being turned into low-margin “dumb pipes” while other companies do the cool (and highly profitable) stuff on top of those pipes.
In spite of poor administration by the organisers, this year’s Mobile World Congress was worth the visit. Despite the cold weather and rain, there were myriad great ideas on show – from Notion Ink’s “Adam” product (a credible competitor to Apple’s iPad) to an entire overhaul of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile platform, dubbed “7 Series”.
Not even the global economic meltdown has dampened the high level of innovation in the mobile industry.
And that’s good news for Stephen Fry and his obsession with toys.
- Spratt is co-founder of ISLabs