MWC Preview: Smartphone, tablet differentiation more important than ever

Following the wireless industry's domination of the Consumer Electronics Show last month, analysts said they expect many of the same device themes from Las Vegas to carry over into Mobile World Congress. However, device vendors will be placed under even greater pressure to differentiate their smartphones and tablets.   

Tablet announcements dominated CES, and they figure to be a powerful presence again at MWC. There also are likely to be dozens of smartphone launches. Though Apple's  (NASDAQ:AAPL) shadow will find its way to the Fira in Barcelona, Spain, expect Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android platform to be the dominant platform at the show. Importantly though, analysts said it will not be enough to simply show up, especially when it comes to tablets. 

"We're going to see an awful lot more stuff coming very, very quickly," Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg said, referring to the cadence of device launches and technology developments. "Where the real challenges are going to be is differentiation. We may see hundreds of phones introduced. Which of these devices are going be iconic? Which of these devices are going to, in the end, matter?"

On tablets, the focus will be on devices running Android version 3.0, or Honeycomb. Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) likely will promote its PlayBook tablet, and it might offer more hints about its developer ecosystem and plans to use QNX software. However, the onus will be on vendors to provide some differentiation, either in pricing or services. The same will be true in smartphones.

"With so many vendors building on top of a common platform (Android), vendors have to differentiate their products somehow," wrote Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart. "At MWC, I expect to see new price points (particularly from Asian vendors such as Huawei and ZTE), 3D displays and image capture (from LG and possibly others), gaming (from Sony Ericsson, though this will likely be a theme for Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) as well), cloud services (music, synchronization, and business services) along with the usual practice of cramming in ever more advanced components (particularly multi-core processors)."

Sony Ericsson officially outed its gaming-focused smartphone, the Xperia Play, in a Super Bowl advertisement. The company is hosting a press conference Feb. 13, so expect to hear more details about the company's integration with parent company Sony's PlayStation platform.

Two companies that had relatively quiet CES showings are expected to be major forces at Mobile World Congress: HTC and Samsung. Samsung announced partnerships Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) at CES, but is expected to unveil a range of devices with dual-core processors at MWC. HTC, meanwhile, could offer up a much-rumored tablet, in addition to new Android phones and smartphones running Microsoft's Windows Phone 7.

"We are expecting these two vendors to try and blow the door out of the show with high-profile, high-spec devices with probably some partnership announcements to boot," said CCS Insight analyst John Jackson.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is delivering a keynote on Feb. 14, returning to Barcelona a year after unveiling Windows Phone 7. Expect to hear about updates to the platform, the state of the business (and perhaps sell-through numbers) as well as expansion plans for 2011. 

Analysts also agree that HSPA+ and LTE devices will be hot, though HSPA+ announcements might be more predominantly European. "We're going to hear more on the story of why faster is better," Gartenberg said. Other themes likely to pop up include NFC technology, multi-core processors and video chatting, said NPD Group analyst Ross Rubin.

The major wild card for the show is Nokia (NYSE:NOK). The company's CEO, Stephen Elop, will unveil Nokia's 2011 strategy at a Feb. 11 investor conference, just ahead of MWC. Elop ignited speculation about the company's smartphone plans last month by saying that Nokia needs to "build, catalyze and/or join a competitive ecosystem," which might mean sticking with Symbian and MeeGo or partnering with Google or Microsoft.