MWC Preview: App Planet re-enters orbit

It wasn't so long ago that Hollywood stars like Robert Redford and Kevin Spacey headlined the annual Mobile World Congress event, but with mobile entertainment now an afterthought in relation to social networking applications, location-enabled services and gaming, the spotlight at this year's conference falls on a different kind of celebrity--Silicon Valley movers and shakers like outgoing Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) CEO Eric Schmidt, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, now the CEO of mobile payment solutions provider Square. All three will headline keynote appearances at this year's MWC, joining the likes of Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer and Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz.

Schmidt's keynote at MWC 2010 was a clear highlight of the event--not only was he insightful and engaging, but he even mixed it up with the audience, vehemently denying suggestions that Google plans to reduce operators to little more than "dumb pipes." Look for Schmidt to address the forthcoming Android 3.0 as well as Google's efforts to make Android Market more lucrative for developers.

Ballmer too returns to MWC a year after unveiling Windows Phone 7 and likely will announce new platform updates and devices; Yahoo promises significant news as well.

Mobile World Congress 2011 also rolls out the red carpet for the mobile software community, reprising the App Planet exhibition first introduced a year ago. App Planet offers platform-specific conferences spanning operating systems including BlackBerry, Windows Phone and webOS; with Apple once again MIA, there's also the new Macworld Mobile, promising technical training, business development advice and professional networking opportunities for iOS developers.

Additional App Planet highlights are expected to include the Brand App Challenge (a competition to create story-themed applications for global consumer brands), the Band App Audition (a contest to build interactive apps for pop acts ranging from Enrique Iglesias to Muse) and the Vodafone-sponsored mWomen Mobile App Challenge (requiring developers to design apps for female users in developing markets). According to the GSMA, more than 6,000 developers and over 150 exhibitors visited App Planet last year--this time around, more than 200 exhibitors have already signed on.

At Mobile World Congress 2010, the GSMA introduced the Wholesale Applications Community, bringing together operators and manufacturers to make it easier for developers to build cross-platform apps optimized across multiple networks. This year, the WAC will outline details of its commercial launch, with CEO Peters Suh and other senior execs demonstrating WAC-enabled application stores, carrier retail efforts and fully functional devices. 

Also of note: Conference tracks devoted to subjects like the mobile web, social networking, mobile advertising, augmented reality and mobile finance.

And last but not least, there's "Mobile TV: Moving from a Last-Resort to Must-See TV," a panel featuring executives from Nokia (NYSE:NOK), Orange, the BBC and MTV Networks. For attendees looking to recapture the showbiz flavor of Mobile World Congress events past, it's can't-miss programming.