The dark side of Mobile World Congress 2011

Everybody always wants to know the big story out of a major conference like Mobile World Congress, which ended last week in Barcelona.  

I can't purport to be the sage who knows for certain the big story for an event where 50,000 visitors attended, with more than 1,500 vendors showing off wares amid numerous press conferences and interviews. But I'll give it a try.

My colleagues and I noted many new smartphones and tablets with a heavy emphasis on Android machines. For the most part, those new smartphones and tablets seemed little more than variations of earlier versions announced at CES in January or in recent weeks, all of them basically still being reactions to the Apple iPhone smartphone or the Apple iPad tablet.

Saying that doesn't mean that Apple does everything right, but the updates by Apple competitors focus mainly on multi-core processors or bigger or smaller screens.  To vastly generalize, most of the competing smartphones are pushing above 4-inch screens, while the tablets seem to be either about 7 inches or nearly the 9.7-inch iPad size, some going above 10 inches.  (For smartphones, I liked the Samsung Galaxy S II smartphone a lot, based on a quick look and feel, but confess that I didn't get to play with most of the others announced.)

Instead of focusing so much on new smartphones and tablets at MWC, I heard and reported on some frankly disturbing comments by vendor executives, especially from Research in Motion but also AT&T, Nokia and Microsoft.

RIM's  Hampus Jakobsson, a director of strategic alliances for RIM and former head of TAT, a cutting-edge interface design company, gave a 15-minute address where he criticized smartphones, tablets and other devices for interrupting us too much, keeping us from interacting with  our communities of workers and friends.  He even suggested that maybe RIM devices shouldn't have games running on them. 

"We're not talking to each other, but talking to devices," Jakobsson said.

It almost seemed as if Jackobsson were setting up RIM as the device maker that would somehow use its BlackBerry smartphones and its coming PlayBook tablet as a kind of interruption gate-keeper or administrative assistant. 

Maybe in the future we will set our devices to partially shut off and automatically guard against interruptions when we enter a certain room like a boardroom, conference area or movie theater or when we decide to set aside time to talk to a spouse, a child or a boss. We can do that ourselves manually today, but we don't always.

It would be easy enough to pre-set a phone to detect a location where an intimate or important conversation should take place, with a voice call sent to voice mail or all texts and e-mails given some sort of answer with a priority given to certain information to pass through something serious, such as a fire in the building.

RIM has a lot of experience with enterprise workers, and uses its BlackBerry Enterprise Server to help IT shops guard against unwanted apps and uses on company devices. BES is also an effective way to wipe a device clean if it is lost, so that valuable corporate data is not stolen.  The issue of company policies on personal property has become more complex as RIM and other vendors see more workers bringing their own devices to work, where company information can be stored but where the IT shop has no automatic right to access.   

Given RIM's history in the enterprise, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Jakobssen would worry about how to keep devices from interrupting us from important tasks.  But my main reaction to his thesis is that most consumers of today's smartphones and tablets are really quite in love with the technology itself, both their hardware and the ability to download apps and interact with them.  Yes, they do take up our attention, especially for younger users, and consumers seem totally obsessed with them, but is that any different from the American consumer's obsession with the automobile?  You see people wanting to sit in an exciting sports car, and to be driving the car for the comfort and fun it represents, not just to have it as a functional alternative to taking the train or bus.  

I don't see any vendor slowing down the incessant rollout of new smartphones and tablets, trying to find the magic pricepoints and service deals that will attract the most buyers. RIM might be coming to grips with its declining market share with smartphones and fishing about for a new marketing appeal with the "interruption" theme (if it becomes a theme), but it probably won't be very successful in doing so unless RIM has some pretty amazing ideas for cool new devices that also control interruptions.

The same could be said for Microsoft, which has launched Windows Phone 7 on the marketing and TV ad theme that its interface allows a smartphone user to get into applications and out again with minimal time and trouble, so that we can all get back to our lives and the people in our lives. (Their ads are cute and do resonate.)

Still, I personally haven't found a Windows Phone 7 smartphone from HTC, the Surround, that I'm using on a review basis all that much faster to use than other smartphone devices I've owned or tried.  The maps functionality was amazing and useful in Barcelona for finding meeting places and restaurants, but the Windows Phone 7 active tiles for people and other groupings on the home screen just seem, well, confusing.  Microsoft seems to be trying to attract the younger, socially connected ultra-multi-tasker, while purporting to also put their lives more in their control.  I don't know whether that capability lessens the phone's control over one's life or just adds to it.  The jury is still out on whether that concept matters that much.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at CES introduced a coming upgrade to Windows Phone that would  add MORE capabilities to the phone.  If you can connect a Windows Phone gamer in XBox Live to a gamer using Kinect in a living room, as Ballmer introduced, you have arguably added a social connection, but something in me thinks Jakobsson would call it, instead, an interruption. (Unless your main object in life is gaming.)

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop spoke several times at MWC, with a striking number of references to the sophisticated and sleek hardware design elements that future Nokia devices running Windows Phone will have, given the new Nokia-Microsoft partnership. I kept wondering if the partnership will produce winning, cool and exciting designs that allow users to do more and more with a Windows Phone smartphone, or if they will be phones that give users more control over their lives or both.  Maybe the two themes aren't contradictory and maybe it ultimately doesn't matter.  

AT&T's CTO John Donovan also spoke at MWC, introducing the notion that personal information needs to be cloud-based and that there will be fewer devices carried by users in coming years. We will be able authenticate on a friend's device and activate all our contacts and other information in the cloud, he said.  While he may not have intended it, his comment seems to repudiate the value of all the new devices that are shown regularly at all the mobile and wireless shows and that AT&T sells every quarter.

Maybe we are eventually going to see fewer devices and devices that give us more control of our lives, but I am not predicting that Samsung, HTC, Motorola, Apple and even RIM, will want to sell fewer devices for many years.  It is also safe to predict that device makers will try to make it possible to do as much as we can on smartphones and tablets and other devices over ever-faster networks.  If that causes confusion and chaos for sellers and buyers alike, it will, and we will all simply adjust.

At the close of MWC, I had a simple dinner with a man and a woman from Montreal, both reporters, and their roommate in a rented Barcelona apartment who is a designer from Hungary.  The man from Hungary was in his mid-30s and only gave his name as Roman. He (naturally) asked me what was the BIG story from MWC.  I, and my reporter friends, started to describe all the things one could do with quad-core processors announced for new smartphones running over faster LTE networks.  But he seemed unimpressed, saying, "Why do I need a quad core?  I just want to put my phone in my pocket and keep it quiet. All the phone designers just seem to be selling to 17 to 25 year olds."

So maybe Roman should meet Jakobbson.  But I think the other 95% of the world will still be excited by the iPhone 5 come June, the same way many of the teenagers in my high school liked the latest Malibu, Corvette or Mustang. Nobody could afford to buy those cars, but they wanted them.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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