This year's Mobile World Congress was the biggest in history in terms of visitors and exhibitors. Over the course of the event, Barcelona welcomed more than 72,000 attendees from 200 countries to what is still the world's most important showcase of mobile technology.
The clear themes and trends that emerged this year are focused on differentiation, user experience and the need for innovation and competition in the marketplace.
The trend, which started at January's International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), shows no signs of abating. For a smartphone to be deemed top of the range, it has to have a 5-inch or 5-inch+ display. The Sony Xperia Z, Asus PadFone Infinity, ZTE Grand S and Samsuing Galaxy Grand all boast a 5-inch display, while the LG Optimus G Pro and Lenovo's K900, (5.5-inch), and ZTE Grand Memo (5.7-inch) plus the Huawei Ascend Mate (6.1-inch) all took it one step further. Pushing the boundaries between tablet and phone even further were the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 tablet which has an 8-inch display and the ability to make phone calls and the Asus FonePad which again is a tablet, this time with a 7-inch display that can be held to one ear and used to call someone.
Focus on features
One trend that does seem to be calming down is that of specifications one-upmanship which has seen manufacturers pack in bigger and bigger processors into their devices -- so big in fact that they are too powerful for the current ecosystem of available apps and therefore a waste of money.
The new battlefield appears to be that of unique features and content. Sony has launched its virtual VIP Lounge app Xperia Lounge, which though available to Android device owners, reserves its premium content -- such as exclusive tracks, backstage access and competitions to win tickets -- for Xperia smartphone owners.
The HTC One offers something called BlinkFeed which is a window of exclusive curated content from ESPN, the AP and even MTV. Nokia's music streaming system is not available on any other brand of Windows Phone. At MWC this theme continued with LG, which showcased something it calls Dual Recording which enables users to shoot video simultaneously from the front and rear-facing cameras so that the recording embeds the filmmaker's reaction to the subject in the same movie in a small box in the bottom corner of the recording, or as a split-screen recording.
The other feature is a special calling app that mimics video conferencing -- while making a voice call, notes and images can also be shared in real time. LG currently doesn't have a name for the app and it is designed to work over a 4GLTE connection only.
A challenge to the status quo
Firefox created a buzz by showcasing its open source operating system and by also revealing that five handset makers, including Sony and LG, are on board. In discussions and round tables held during the congress a recurring theme was that Google and Apple had become too powerful and more operating systems were needed in the marketplace, if only to create some competition and to increase network providers' powers of negotiation. European carriers claim that they currently invest more in buying and subsidizing Android and iOS handset than they do in network infrastructure investment.
A signal that power has moved
There were no big launches or announcements or even a recognized presence from Apple, Google or Microsoft. What's more, Samsung decided against launching its latest smartphone at the event, preferring instead to hold a dedicated launch event in New York in March. As recently as four years ago, Europe was the heart of the smartphone market in terms of major players, innovation and market penetration. Now, the world's two biggest mobile companies are both American -- Apple and Google -- and manufacturers feel they need to showcase their most innovative devices in the US to gain the necessary market traction. Sony launched its flagship phone at CES in Las Vegas, and BlackBerry and HTC both chose to host US-based launches for their latest offerings ahead of the Mobile World Congress.
Desperation for NFC to go mainstream
The MWC hosted something called the NFC Experience, a showcase to demonstrate to delegates and attendees the magic of tapping a smartphone against a plate in order to buy something, summon a taxi, open or close a hotel room door or download tourist information relating to a specific point in the city of Barcelona. There is no denying that near-field communication has its uses -- it's a great protocol for connecting two devices or for pushing and pulling information or files (it's the system that metro cards in the UK, the US, France and Japan to name but four countries, rely on) but as countless surveys and reports have shown, consumers are not interested in replacing their wallets with NFC and, until Apple adopts the technology, it will not go mainstream.