Touchscreens were of course everywhere, with smartphones getting bigger and increasing numbers of 4G/LTE phones. Tablets on the other hand are shrinking, with new hybrid formats. Competition is tough on the rich microprocessor and operating systems markets and the evangelists were everywhere! Here’s a summary of what stood out for us at the show.
Less means more
One trend was clear. After years of smartphone releases by the shovel load, there has been a return to moderation by the big names in the sector. Whether HTC, Nokia or LG, all the manufacturers have cut down on their catalogue and reined in their ranges. Does this mean the end of broken promises (handsets announced but never released), cloning and endless delays between product announcements and the arrival of product lines? Let's not jump to any conclusions. While most manufacturers are aiming at a bit more moderation, the arrival of Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei on Western markets could well push the more established names to respond more prolifically, even at the risk of losing and frustrating customers looking for more simplicity of choice.
And what about tablets?
2012 was predicted to be an explosive year for tablet sales and we were expecting lots of announcements. In the end, only a few new tablets were unveiled, with Nvidia’s Tegra 3 quad-cores apparently driving these releases. Among them were the Toshiba AT270, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 (7.7-inch AMOLED 1280 x 800 pixel screen, Android 4.0) and the extended range from Asus.
The Asus range has in fact been totally reorganised, under the new Transformer Pad banner, with the EeePad Transformer Prime now known as the Transformer Pad Prime and the Transformer Pad 300 and the Infinity series upping their game with Full HD screens.
Note that the 3G/4G Infinity model comes with a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 1.5 GHz processor instead of the Tegra 3.
The Chinese are also taking on the tablet market with a powerful model from Huawei, the MediaPad 10FHD, running on Android ICS and equipped with a Full HD screen and an in-house K3V2 quad-core processor clocked at 1.5 GHz.
Samsung is also renewing the Galaxy Tab range, though the introduction of 7 and 10.1-inch versions of the Tab 2 was not necessarily being highlighted at the show, the glory going to the Galaxy Note 10.1 instead. In choosing not to introduce a Galaxy S III and in focusing almost entirely on its Note range, Samsung was hoping to underscore its vision of smart stylus mobile products.
Android: still star of the show
Android here, Android there, Android everywhere! It was hard to escape talk of the Google OS at this year’s MWC. One floor up, on the right, two foot bridges and quite a walk away, we finally came across a hall where Nokia, BlackBerry and various applications stands (often for iOS) had taken up residence. Evern there, however, Mozilla was promoting Firefox for Android.
This floor layout reflected the show's orientation pretty faithfully. Huawei, ZTE, HTC, SMC and Asus were all focused on Android and promising devices running on ICS. At times, the show seemed to be a sort of Android version of MacWorld. Google was even handing out badges of its favourite mascot.
The Android overload meant that any announcement that didn't have anything to do with the green robot was a nice breath of fresh air!
The hybrid, out in force
Big smartphones, small tablets and even smartphones fitting INSIDE big tablets was the other major trend, the idea being to cover all the angles of attack and address all the various target segments to create wall-to-wall tech coverage.
Asus carried the day in the hybrid segment with the PadFone, which has finally come out of the shadows. This daring concept consists of a smartphone running on Android 4.0 and the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 clocked at 1.5 GHz. The phone slides into a 10.1-inch Transformer Pad that's compatible with the battery-keyboard dock from the first Transformer, which, according to Asus, increases battery life by a factor of 9.
The final rabbit out of the hat was the Bluetooth stylus that comes with the PadFone and is capable of turning into a substitute telephone - the sort of product that's somewhere between the idea of the year and a page out of a catalogue of any cheap Asian wholesaler.
In Korea however, the hybrid concept seems to be more an either / or thing, with either smartphones extending too much in the direction of tablets, or the other way round. After Samsung and its Note, LG has joined the party with the Optimus Vu, a 5-inch model that doesn't however have much under the bonnet: 8 GB of storage and Android 2.3, but a 1024 x 768 pixel screen.
In the back alleys of MWC 2012 we also found various obscure suppliers already producing 5 and 5.3-inch no-name devices running on Android: the hybrid segment looks as if it could be here to stay.
Nokia is (almost) back
Buoyed by the partnership with Microsoft and the Windows Phone OS, Nokia is back in high spirits. The company is once again looking to appeal to the consumer, to stand out and compete. The leader of world mobile telephony, initially caught unawares by the development of the smartphone market, may well be back in the race in the months to come. Following the Lumia 800 release, the company has extended its Windows Phone range with two new models , the big Lumia 900 and an entry-level model, the Lumia 610. Nokia is looking confident and showing belief in its ability to rebound. It doesn’t have much to prove on the hardware side. Its phones have a solid reputation and the Lumia range stands out nicely from the Asian competition. It has moreover chosen a stable operating system, bringing a bit of fresh air to a market dominated by Android and iOS. Will Nokia be able to challenge Samsung and Apple in the future?
Note also the buzz created at MWC by the presentation of Nokia's PureView handset, a smartphone (in Symbian) with a 41 Megapixel sensor.
Chips: slim lines, high performance
We've had the race for pixels with cameras, now foundries are focussing on the number of cores in chips for our mobile devices. Nvidia was first to up the bidding with its quad-core Tegra 3, already installed on a few devices and Intel is once again trying to break into the mobile market. After two failures, it does finally have a microprocessor in a phone, made by Gigabyte and due to come onto the market this summer.
Qualcomm has once again brought out a new Snapdragon (the S4), which has ‘just' two cores but which gives a better performance/energy consumption/price ratio than the quad-core Nvidia solution. Against all expectations, Huawei has also enetered the fray with its own quad-core chip!
While we’re not against the race for cores – as long, of course, as the content keeps pace – we don’t see the debate simply as a 'more is best' one, though the marketing speak does seem to be focusing on numbers of cores!
Technology: NFC on its way
While waiting for contactless payment to catch on, Sony Mobile Communications has come up with the idea of supplying Smart Tags with its Xperia S and Xperia P. You can use these tags at home, in your car or anywhere else to programme your phone to turn certain features on or off (GPS in the car, all alerts off in the bedroom and so on) when you bring it up close to one of the smart stickers. Nice!
At MWC, South Korea Telecom (SKT) was demoing some of NFC's potential with an entire mini-town running on the technology. Reserving cinema tickets along with your popcorn, buying baseball match tickets and customising and purchasing your favourite team’s jersey all becomes child's play!
Indeed, for children, SKT has come up with NFC integration in Furby-lookalike mechanical toys as well as learning environments. Putting NFC in geographical maps, games or dice, allows children to learn the alphabet, the countries and capitals of the world and simply have fun. The applications for the technology are seemingly infinite and hugely expand what’s possible in a learning environment.
Coming to terms with the Chinese presence
ZTE and Huawei represented two inevitable and at the end of the day promising MWC destinations, making up for the lack of new smartphones on the Samsung stand opposite. ZTE is quietly bucking the trend on the market in 2012, with no fewer than 20 different Android 4.0 ICS tablet and smartphone releases slated for the months to come.
They won’t only be entry-level models either! From forgettable processors to Tegra 3s, ZTE is casting its net wide, even offering a Windows Phone 7.5 model. In case you didn’t know, ZTE is the fifth largest mobile phone manufacturer in the world (yes!) and is set on driving prices downwards, with, for example, its Tegra 3 Androphone Era expected to come in at something just over £200.
While the more established brands on the smartphone market are extending their ranges downwards, ZTE is going in the opposite direction and, along with Huawei, is looking to make inroads into the high-end markets in the West. To increase brand awareness, you always need a few flagship models. Four handsets with dual or quad-core (Ascend D Quad) processors were on show from the Ascend range, all in 4G LTE versions. Huawei looks set to do some damage and is looking upwards, particularly at Samsung, its direct competitor in terms of positioning.
Multimedia: more pampering
Multimedia quality has always been the credo of HTC, though the company has been in difficulty over the last few months. At MWC it was introducing its new One range, which includes three handsets (entry, mid and top-end) all offering, according to HTC, a new photo and audio experience.
Meanwhile, it has to be said, audio innovation was severly lacking at this year’s show. Although smartphones are pushing audio players off the market, you wouldn't know it from MWC 2012. Dolby and DTS have successfully integrated real or simulated multichannel sound in tablets and smartphones (it isn’t difficult to play 5.1 sound on your TV from your handset), but there’s still nothing very substantial for listening on the move. Manufacturers are all rushing to implement spatial processing, often with very variable results.
The most significant recent development is of course the purchase of Beats Audio by HTC. None of the competition seems to be rushing to respond however.
Wireless solutions are nevertheless appearing. Whether from Sennheiser, Sony or other providers such as Jabra, the availability of good quality codecs is making Bluetooth much more practical for music, as long as you’re prepared to pay the going rate.
Microsoft: a mover and a shaker
Microsoft is the new challenger on the mobile OS market and took the opportunity of MWC to announce a new Windows 8 beta, a public one this time (Consumer Preview). The OS has clearly been designed with mobility in mind. W8's Metro interface, inspired by WinPho 7, will homogenise the user experience on all types of device.
This is a radical change and explains the planned compatibility of the operating system with ARM processor architecture, which is very different from that to be found in standard PCs. What they’re aiming at is an identical or appropriate user experience whatever device you happen to be using. An Nvidia spokesperson also told us that it wouldn't be outlandish to think that we might find PCs running on Tegra in the near future. Full integration between Windows phones and Windows 8 should come about towards the end of the year with the launch of Windows Phone 8. However we still don’t know if it will be compatible with current handsets.
Buoyed by the new partnership with Nokia, Microsoft is hoping to return to the forefront of the mobile phone market and convert the generally positive reaction to Windows Phone 7 into market share. According to Microsoft itself, it has plenty on its side: less fragmentation than Android and a more varied choice in terms of handsets than iOS. Apart from Nokia, ZTE and Acer however, Windows Phone 7's other early partners (HTC, Samsung and LG) still haven’t presented any new WinPho7 phones, though they are all adding to their Android range. ‘Soon’, we keep hearing… 'Soon'.
If you’re like the Japanese and you take your phone with you into your bath, you’re obviously at risk of giving it a dunking (over 40% of phone breakdowns in Japan are a result of being dropped in the bath according to Panasonic) and you may be interested in the trend among several Japanese manufacturers to offer waterproof mobile products.
Panasonic has opened the bidding with its ultra-slim Eluga smartphone. While we weren't especially convinced by the visuals, when we had the phone in hand we had to admit it has a remarkable finish and a flattering OLED screen.
Fujitsu has also come up with a whole range of waterproof smartphones and tablets (Arrows) and created quite a sensation at MWC with its aquarium of Arrow tablets and phones as well as a Windows Phone (made in partnership with Toshiba). At last we should have some phones for which the guarantee holds after you get them wet in the rain!