The Fruits of Mobility that We Shall Never Eat

_MG_7949Large.JPGEarlier this week in Barcelona, the Mobile World Congress took place.

This is the single largest conference about cell phone and other mobile technologies in the world.

Technologies introduced here will cascade into the real world over the course of 2008.

The focus of this year’s event is on touch screen devices that are more like computers than phones, and the disrupting power of Google.

What’s more, this year’s congress represents the final nail in the coffin of CDMA, the equivalent of Betamax in the mobile telecommunications industry.

Somewhat ironically, probably the biggest trend at this year’s Mobile World Congress emerged last January at MacWorld.

That was when Apple introduced the iPhone, an elegant handheld computer that demonstrated to the mobile industry what a cell phone should be.

Technology leaders such as Nokia and Samsung were rocked into readjusting their approaches to mobile phones and the software on them.

And Motorola, once a leader with the popular RAZR, is now on the brink of folding their mobile phone business, due in no small part to the iPhone.

One of the major features of the iPhone is its fun and functional touch screen interface, and this is what virtually every handset maker is rushing to emulate, with mixed results.

As a result, touch screens are rampant in Barcelona this year.

Touch screen devices are designed to replace the buttons on your phone with a big screen that displays just the controls you need, when you need them.

The touch screen interface sounds simple in concept. But the difference between, say, Apple’s iPhone and HTC’s Touch demonstrate just how good and bad it can be in implementation.

Of course, there are some potential iPhone killers in Barcelona.

Garmin (yes, the GPS company) is set to release their Nüvifone later this year, and Nokia has juiced up their already lust-worthy N-series of handsets with a new awe-inspiring set of features.

Currently at risk of being an also-ran in the mobile phone business, Sony-Ericsson also announced a landmark new product, the Experia X1. This sexy-looking slider is destined to go State-side in the next few months.

A lot of talk in Barcelona surrounds some of the first public previews of Google’s new Android mobile operating system.

A mobile phone’s operating system provides it with its basic capabilities and offers us, as users, the “look and feel” that we interact with when we actually use a device.

The dominant mobile operating system, for example, is one hardly any North American has heard of: Symbian, which was shipped on over 77 million handsets last year. If you have a phone from Nokia, Sony Ericsson, or Samsung, you’re using Symbian.

More dominant in North America are RIM’s Blackberry, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, and Apple’s Mac OS X on the iPhone. But each of these hold a paltry portion of the market in comparison to Symbian.

So why would Google even bother to enter what, at first blush, is a market already controlled by a number of dominant players?

As usual, Google isn’t about status quo. Its Android is all about sea change.

Acquired three years ago in a private sale for an undisclosed sum, Android is Google’s wake up call to the mobile industry.

Android is the industry’s first step into what I call Relationship Technology. If you’re a regular reader of this column then you know that I consider RT the logical next step after Information Technology.

Most devices we use today, including computers and mobile handsets, are simply dumb conduits of stock information. RT, in the form of Google’s Android, is all about building a context around your current state of being.

Android maintains a constant awareness of where you are and what you’re doing so that any device it’s running on can constantly provide you with immediately relevant subject matter without any effort on your part.

By all reports from Barcelona, Android is in a very rough state.

There aren’t even any commercially-oriented handsets on show.

But when it hits the market later this year, Google’s Android will harken in a new era of mobile computing that will permanently change how we communicate — to a far greater extent than even the iPhone.

Finally, and this is of interest to many North Americans whose lives depend on the technology, this year’s Mobile World Congress is the swan song for CDMA.

CDMA is the telecommunications platform for two of Canada’s largest mobile service providers, Bell and Telus, and for a handful in the US, including Verizon. And simply put, it’s the Betamax of the industry.

The Mobile World Congress used to be all about GSM, CDMA’s arch-rival, and the dominant global platform by far.

This year, as almost an expression of pity, they let CDMA players into their show. It’s a cruel act of triumph, akin to Peter Pan forcing Captain Hook to announce he’s a codfish. A sort of, “In your face, CDMA.”

Because the simple fact is, none of the really cool technologies at the Mobile World Congress will ever meet a CDMA network. They’ll all be implemented for GSM-based networks around the world.

In short, Mobile World Congress 2008 is a wake up call to the North American mobile industry: time to upgrade, dude.

Alas, that day is likely far in the future. We’ll be stuck with afterthought handsets from tier-two technologies companies willing to service a withering platform for some time to come.

However, that’s what we have the internet for: to discover the wondrous technologies that are beyond our reach. We’ll just have to get used to wiping the saliva off our keyboards.