It has been just over a week since the Fira de Barcelona gates closed on Mobile World Congress 2012, so now is a good time for a retrospective look at the event. MWC is a show of big announcements, where vendors unveil their devices, carriers lay out their road maps and infrastructure vendors show off their future networking technologies. We will get to some of those individual big-ticket items shortly, but first let’s go over the big theme of the show, which can be summed up in a simple concept: connectivity in everything.
The thing that impressed me most about MWC wasn’t a phone or new network architecture but the much more subtle shift in focus on how we live in a hyperconnected world. Embedded connectivity isn’t a new theme in the industry. We have been talking about machine-to-machine communications, the connected home and the Internet of things for years. But this year the industry seemed to move beyond starry-eyed soothsaying about a world of 50 billion connected devices to start talking about how these mammoth networks of objects and appliances would actually work and how they would be managed.
Utopia or dystopia?
Ford Motor Company’s executive chairman, Bill Ford, delivered a keynote address on the connected car that was both inspiring and frightening. Ford has moved well beyond the idea of the embedded connectivity in vehicles being used for mere infotainment. Instead it dreams of a world where cars don’t just talk to the network but to one another, sharing information on their speed, direction and even destination in order to coordinate their movements across the world’s highways. Ford predicts there will soon be 4 billion cars globally, which will bring untold amounts of congestion to our roads. He implied that human beings acting as individual agents could no longer manage that congestion in any meaningful way, but a machine intelligence distributed among billions of individual vehicles could make the optimal decisions on where our cars are placed on the highway.
Like I said, it’s a compelling a vision, but it’s also a disturbing one, not only because of its sci-fi dystopia connotations. Such a network doesn’t just transmit information that we as people act upon, like we would by searching the Web on our smartphones. Our devices themselves are acting on that information, and the decisions they make aren’t necessarily the ones we would choose.
You might think, for instance, that weaving in and out of traffic is the best way to get to your destination faster, but the network may decide that keeping you put in a tight platoon of cars is best to keep congestion to a minimum. It’s the classic prisoner’s dilemma: The network as a whole benefits from coordination, but it may not work exactly as the individuals want it to. Creating truly intelligent machine networks requires more than just buying a fancy car or device and subscribing to a wireless connection. It means entering into a social contract of sorts. That’s pretty mind-blowing stuff, and I’m not sure if we as a society are ready to take that leap.
Turning down the volume on the Internet of things
The GSMA’s Connected House at MWC was a big hit despite some of the more gimmicky items’ failing to make an impression (the promised connected pajamas were a no-show). And just as Ford has begun asking questions about the role of cars in our connected futures, Ericsson and AT&T began asking how we manage our lives when everything from our front doors to coffee makers are beaming information to us. In an interview, Ericsson Labs’ Mikael Anneroth made the interesting point that if 50 devices in our home are connected, they will generate a lot of chatter, and that deluge of info could get very annoying. If the Internet of things is giving us too much information, is it really giving us no useful information at all?
Ericsson and AT&T are both trying to solve that problem by creating means to manage the information our objects send. AT&T has developed immediately applicable connected-home-portal software through its new Digital Life platform, which it formally launched at MWC. The platform allows customers to group together device actions: When you lock the door the lights go off and the thermostat lowers.
Meanwhile, Ericsson is looking further into the future, designing a social network of things in which devices communicate with one another, acting on the information they receive. As in Ford’s connected car, embedded objects behave with an intelligence of their own, and the user winds up seeing only the end results. For instance, if inclement weather is on the horizon, all of a user’s connected objects could go into storm mode: The windows close, the heat goes up, new route information is sent to your car’s onboard navigation system and your calendar is updated to give you extra time to make your appointments.
Of course, handing that much free agency to devices has its pitfalls. These connections have to be secure, and the artificial intelligence behind them has to be foolproof. What happens if these systems are hacked? Your kitchen appliances may go haywire, or worse, your car could start swerving to avoid phantoms.
The devices of MWC
MWC wasn’t quite the device fest we expected. There were a lot of new phones and tablets unveiled in Barcelona, but only a few stood out.
- Samsung took the tarp off the Galaxy Beam, a smartphone with a pico-projector. The Android 2.3 device didn’t have the loaded specs of other Galaxy devices, but its ability to project video and images up to 50 inches may make it a harbinger of a new mode of display technology.
- Nokia revealed a new scaled-down Lumia designed to “introduce” the newcomers to the Windows Phone platform, but its real innovation at the show was embedded in a Symbian phone. The 41-megapixel Nokia 808 is the first device to use Nokia’s new PureView technology, which uses oversampling techniques to take camera imaging technology to the next level.
- Orange unveiled what will likely be the first commercial smartphone with an Intel Atom processor, the Android-powered Santa Clara. That’s a huge coup for Intel. While it has earlier commitments from Motorola and Lenovo for its Medfield chip — and announced new deals with ZTE and Lava — the backing of a huge global carrier sends signals that operators are looking for a competing architecture to the entrenched ARM.
Speaking of chips, the show stealer when it came to the guts of the device was the ARM-based quad-core processor, which made its way into the first smartphones at MWC. LG, HTC and ZTE all had hopped-up Android phones to gaze at, and Huawei had two. Except for Huawei’s, all of them sported the Tegra 3 chips, highlighting Nvidia’s early lead in the space. The bottom line is our handheld devices are becoming enormously powerful, and at this pace of innovation multicore chipsets may be as common as cameras in our phones in a year or two’s time.
Mobile silicon Qualcomm quad-core Snapdragon is still sampling, and it won’t make it into the first devices until the later half of the year. Still Qualcomm silicon was pervasive in the devices at the show, especially in the form of integrated LTE-dual-core chipset. Many of the devices bound for the U.S., like the HTC One X, had just such a configuration, since Nvidia’s Tegra 3 doesn’t yet gel with LTE radios. There is still a disconnect between processing power and radio power in the industry, but it’s one that the industry will hopefully bridge soon.
LTE connectivity made it into a number of devices, but there were plenty of HPSA+ and HSPA-only devices on hand. That wasn’t a big surprise, considering LTE is still in its infancy in Europe and every region of the world outside North America and East Asia.
On the software side, Google’s latest version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich, dominated. Windows Phone 7 appeared in several devices, but Microsoft made its biggest splash in its preview of the consumer version of Windows 8, which bridges the world of mobile and desktop computing.
The networks of MWC
As we pointed out in our pre-event coverage, Mobile World Congress is starting to look more like a Wi-Fi networking than a cellular networking event. Vendors and many of their operator customers have gotten Wi-Fi religion — something that would be unheard of two years ago — and the new technologies and gear they unveiled at the show reflected those new-found beliefs. But there was always heavy emphasis on Wi-Fi sister technology small cells.
- Alcatel-Lucent and Nokia Siemens Networks both revealed new network architectures that sought to integrate Wi-Fi and small cells directly into the fabric of the cellular network. Both played on the concept of the heterogeneous network, or hetnet, which creates an underlay of high-capacity nodes — either Wi-Fi or 3G and 4G — below the coverage-oriented macro network.
- Just before the show, Ericsson officially announced its acquisition of metro-Wi-Fi gear maker BelAir Networks, showing that the world’s largest mobile infrastructure vendor is getting serious about Wi-Fi.
- The standards bodies revealed significant progress on integrating the Wi-Fi access point into the mobile network, allowing operators to treat devices that roam onto hotspots as if they were on their cellular systems. Cisco Systems unveiled the first access points that incorporated the Hotspot 2.0 and Next Generation Hotspot technologies.
Wi-Fi could wind up being an enormous boon for wireless operators, allowing them to offload mobile data traffic onto cheap high-capacity access points using free and unlicensed spectrum. But Wi-Fi is double-edged sword. Unlike with their own cellular networks, which use licensed spectrum, operators have no claims to the Wi-Fi airwaves. Interference and congestion could rapidly become big problems if Wi-Fi is overused.
LTE wasn’t exactly a no-show, but there was no slew of major carriers announcing new LTE deployments. The big exception was China Mobile, which announced a large-scale rollout of time-division LTE (TD-LTE) that will deliver to more than 200,000 cell sites by the end of 2013. That’s very good news for Clearwire. The U.S. WiMax operator’s concurrent rollout of TD-LTE will depend on there being a global device ecosystem, and having the largest operator in the world in your ecosystem will be a big help.
China loomed quite large at Mobile World Congress, signifying the growing shift away from the developed markets to the fast-developing regions of China and India. It was apt that during the show China breached the 1 billion subscriber mark, making it the single-most-dominant mobile region in the world.
In conclusion, the technologies on display at Mobile World Congress were incremental — they move the mobile broadband forward step-by-step — but conceptually there was a big shift in thinking. The industry is no longer focused on just connecting as many devices as possible with the fastest network connections. It is starting to think about how those devices will interact with the network, one another and their owners. It’s an interesting problem to tackle. Getting to 50 billion connected devices is one thing, but what we do with those 50 billion devices is another thing altogether.