MWC 2014: The highs and the lows

So how was it for you?

Like many of you I've just got back from my annual trip to Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and am now in the process of sorting out my impressions of the event, and the significance of the announcements that were made there.

First, some stats: the GSMA reported that more than 85,000 visitors from 201 countries attended the 2014 event, which it said set another new record. In addition to the more than 80,000 attendees at MWC at Fira Gran Via, more than 5,000 people participated in a range of partner programmes at Fira Montjuïc.

This all goes to reflect the fact that MWC is thriving, at least for now, although if visitor numbers continue to grow and facilities such as transport and traffic remain problematic then the event could become a victim of its own success. In addition, anecdotal evidence so far suggests that crime is still rife, with some attendees the victim of robberies during the show.

To be sure, there were positive announcements aplenty at the show with the usual raft of new smartphones, tablets and, increasingly, wearable devices. Huawei, for example, entered the wearables market with a sports band, but generally this segment has already come in for some criticism that devices launched so far are just plain ugly. Motorola for one is promising to provide far more attractive options in future.

Other device announcements of note include the Nokia X range running on Android, which raises a number of questions about Nokia's platform strategy under Microsoft. Yota Devices also launched its second dual-screen YotaPhone, and the Blackphone was launched as expected with a focus on security.

The first visit to the event by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook caused something of a stir, and also reflected the growing importance of over-the-top players and internet companies for the mobile industry.

There to promote his internet.org campaign to facilitate internet access for all, Zuckerberg is increasingly wooing the mobile industry. However, his calls for free internet access or "zero access" deals for Facebook are at odds with an industry trying to find new ways to generate revenue. Indeed, CEOs such as Jon Fredrik Baksaas from Telenor made it clear during an MWC keynote that mobile operators fully expect all "stakeholders" including internet companies to fund the next $1.7 trillion (€1.2 trillion) investment in the next five years.

Aside from the general industry buzz, deal-making and high-tech investors, there is an uncomfortable aspect of MWC: ask any local Barcelona resident if they see any glimmers of improvement in the economic environment and the response is anger and frustration. They are frustrated with a city, region and country that appear unable to pull themselves out of a slump and continue to have high levels of unemployment, particularly among the young.

This is a situation evidently close to Neelie Kroes' heart: the European Commissioner for the digital agenda becomes very emotional when she talks of the high level of youth unemployment in Europe as a whole. Her call for Europe's telecoms industry to start investment now in 5G to get a head start in this field is largely based on the desire to create a buoyant telecoms market that can support growth across a number of different industry sectors and create employment. In her view, a healthy telecoms market is critical to underpin the health of the entire region.

The 2015 Mobile World Congress will be held March 2-5 at Fira Gran Via in Barcelona.--Anne

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