Mobile World Congress: 5 Trends to Watch

Next week, the mobile-obsessed hordes will descend on Barcelona for the hottest tech show on Earth: the Mobile World Congress (if you thought it was the Consumer Electronics Show you’re living in the early aughts, my friend). For those, like me, who are staying behind and are worried about being overwhelmed, here are the five themes worth paying attention to during the four days of the show. Don’t worry; if we missed one, we’ll let you know as soon as we see it.

Mobile Networks Meet the Cloud. All the big gear makers from Alcatel-Lucent (s alu) to Nokia Siemens Networks (s nok) (s si) will have something to show mobile operators that will allow them to deploy smaller base stations and more flexible networks. Big vendors and startups are all trying to help operators deal with a deluge of traffic and the need for more network components, from Wi-Fi access points to pico and femtocells. As operators support more networks and deploy more base stations, they’ll need more software to manage and adjust them without the aid of costly network engineers. Expect startups pitching self-optimizing networks, real-time traffic information, technology to manage interference and other products that will help operators automate their networks to appear in droves.

Dual-Core is the Only Core. Just this week, Qualcomm (s qcom), Broadcom (s brcm) and Texas Instruments (s txn) all announced new application processors that take the idea of a single-core, 1-GHz smartphone chip and double (or in the case of TI’s planned OMAP 5 product, quadruple) it. We’ve been excited about dual-core chips for years, but they are just now hitting the market in consumer phones and tablets. Look for demonstrations of the chips, and also for the new types of devices and applications they can power. Given that most people are toting smartphones with single cores today, you might also be looking to replace your existing phone. It’s going to look pretty slow after Barcelona’s demonstrations.

The Overwhelming Onslaught of Video. A huge component of mobile traffic will be video as consumers download YouTube (s goog)  videos, chat with friends via FaceTime or merely play precious moments from their Facebook pages on their handsets. Allot Communications recently said streaming video comprises 37 percent of network traffic today and Cisco said it would be 66 percent of traffic by 2015 (s csco). Part of the issue is more people turning to video on their handsets, but the other component is a rise in tablets which makes watching video so much better while on the go. Vendors such as Bytemobile will show off new gear to help operators optimize video on their networks and reduce costs, while startups such as Skype and Facebook might introduce new products that only exacerbate the problem.

Tune in to See if Microsoft (s msft) Gets Mobile. After Nokia turned to Microsoft today to save its “burning platform,” the software giant has a chance to team up with a great handset maker to give its Windows Phone 7 operating system a draw. Some reviewers actually liked Windows Phone 7 when it launched last year, but when it hit the market, the response from consumers was decidedly less enthusiastic. And while operators might long for alternatives to the Android/Apple (s aapl) juggernauts, it’s unclear if Microsoft and Nokia will convince operators, developers and consumers that the combined platforms are a good option. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, will give a keynote at Mobile World Congress, and observers will also be looking for hot apps and good devices that buy into the Redmond ecosystem. Also pay attention to see if Microsoft’s decision to port its Windows franchise to the ARM (s armh) architecture generates any exciting tablet or even laptop news.

Everyone Hops on the Mobile Payments Bandwagon … Again. Mobile payments have been a favorite topic in the industry for years, but this year may prove to be a turning point as more players jump on to Near Field Communications, direct carrier billing and other payment options. Mobile World Congress has dedicated a conference track to mobile money, with an assortment of carrier, financial institutions, payment providers and start-ups all scheduled to talk about the industry. While Square’s Jack Dorsey is a scheduled keynote speaker, it appears much of the talk will revolve around NFC deployments, trials and updates. Google’s outgoing CEO Eric Schmidt is scheduled to keynote and will likely talk about Android’s support for NFC among other things. But expect a lot of other news from other players looking to finally make some money off mobile payments.

Additional reporting by Ryan Kim.

Image courtesy of Flickr user andy_c

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