Mobile World Congress: What’s MWC without iPhone?

Tue, 02/17/2009 - 7:10am
Monica Alleven, Wireless Week

BARCELONA – Several industry heavyweights were charged with tackling the open mobile ecosystem in a Mobile World Congress (MWC) keynote Tuesday that left some audience members amused, and at least one man somewhat annoyed.

After each CEO – AT&T Mobile’s Ralph de la Vega, Nokia’s Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo and Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer – gave a presentation, Walt Mossberg of The Walt Street Journal moderated a discussion that included questions about the Apple iPhone. During the Q&A session with the audience, one man from Denmark asked if the U.S.-dominated panel could focus on the 99 percent of phone users around the world who are not among the tiny percentage of iPhone users.

Ballmer laughed, saying, “It’s OK with us,” referring to himself and Kallasvuo, who was sitting next to him. “I’m with you,” he said to the questioner, adding that a lot of work still needs to be done to get the world talking about devices other than the iPhone. Apple doesn’t have a formal presence at MWC, but it’s nevertheless a dominant topic.

De la Vega added, however, that 99 or so percent of the people at Mobile World Congress are trying to copy everything Apple did with the iPhone. (Mossberg noted that some things actually do start in the United States, and right about that time, he said he was – honestly – given a note saying it was time to end the session, which had already gone about an hour over its pre-scheduled time.)

On a more serious note, de la Vega equated today’s incompatibility problems to that of SMS in the United States in 2002, before interoperability between operators. Once the interoperability was addressed and partnerships were put into place, that part of the industry went from $26 million in revenue to $5 billion.

Today, customers want to use apps on any device without having to worry about the operating systems, he said. “We now have islands of applications,” and those islands will need to come down.

In an apparent reference to comments at MWC by former Vodafone Chief Arun Sarin, de la Vega noted that a year ago, industry leaders called for just a handful of operating systems. Instead, more have been added, bringing the number of operating systems to nine. Developers need some common standards and programming interfaces if the ecosystem is to be successful.

Ballmer said he doesn’t think the industry will have nine platforms for the next 10 years; it will probably shake out to a couple or three. But he also said many of the applications are merely front ends to Web sites, where people can buy all kinds of things.

The keynoters were tasked to address the complex issue: moving toward an open mobile ecosystem when many people hold many definitions of “open.” Kallasvuo, who at one point noted the vertical, closed nature of Apple’s iPhone model, said going to an open model represents change, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Case in point: Nokia and Qualcomm, which for years have been bitter rivals in courts over intellectual property rights, struck a deal to work together to develop advanced UMTS devices. “Yes, with Qualcomm,” Kallasvuo lightheartedly emphasized to the delight of audience members.

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