3GSM diary: Change is never easy

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It is fitting that this year’s 3GSM congress is held for the first time in Barcelona, after growing numbers of delegates drove it from its former home in Cannes.

After years of 3G licence debts, maturing markets and confusion around next-generation mobile services, 2006 is already shaping up as a more positive year for many in the mobile telecoms industry.

But change is never easy. While moving the event to Barcelona has meant taxis are more plentiful (as are hotel rooms - though with 40,000 attendees it is inevitable that some still end up commuting in), the new location has taken some getting used to for 3GSM old hands.

The once intimate and familiar trade show has been transplanted to a bigger and somewhat sprawling city, and at least a few delegates admit to feeling slightly lost, despite the ubiquitous presence of helpful locals at vendor booths, hotels and even train stations.

But some things haven’t changed — you can still tell a lot about the varying fortunes of the industry’s leading players from how they stage their media conferences.

Microsoft has long been on the back foot in the mobile industry. In mobile email, Research in Motion’s BlackBerry has an enviable position, as does Apple in the portable and downloadable music market. Even on operating systems there are rivals aplenty, from Symbian to Linux.

Accordingly, Microsoft’s press conference was a fairly humble affair. It was held conveniently across the road from the congress, began almost on time and announced in a fairly low-key way deals with operators to provide “push” mobile email, BlackBerry-style. No dry ice, no giant projection screens – little more, in fact, than a few Powerpoint slides.

Perhaps the main speaker, senior VP for mobile and embedded communications Pieter Khnook, was leaving the excitement for chief executive Steve Ballmer’s keynote on Tuesday.

Then there was Motorola. Riding the four-letter wave of success from its popular Razr handsets and new additions such as Pebl and Slvr, the number two handset maker decided to put on a show. Journalists who made it across town to the Palau de Congresas de Catalunyas were ushered, fashionably late, into a room furnished more like a bar than a press conference, with each tiny, tall table decorated with polished stones and Pebl mock-ups.

Chief executive Ed Zander stumbled onto the bright stage, ostentatiously watching the final moments of a US football game on his phone: the obligatory nod towards this year’s dominant 3GSM theme, mobile TV. He followed this with some less-than-thrilling demonstrations of technology that links mobile phones to personal video recorders. Motorola could learn something from Microsoft’s bitter past experience: product demonstrations in front of big crowds are only memorable when they go amusingly wrong.

Not that there is any shortage of decent news coming out of 3GSM. Nokia is talking up handsets that seamlessly support VoIP over unregulated Wifi spectrum. Motorola and Yahoo are collaborating on mobile podcast downloads. Microsoft looks like it’s making some headway into the coveted mobile messaging and music markets.

Mobile TV, however, is the catchphrase here. The industry is hoping that this time it has picked the winner before the punters (after the real winners of mobile services to date — SMS and ringtones — came out of leftfield). After all, who doesn’t like TV? Data from mobile TV trials released in recent months has been viewed in the industry as broadly positive. But no-one claims to know for sure – at least two delegates I spoke to on Monday, both with vested interests in the success mobile TV, tacitly admitted they could be backing the wrong horse.

Kate.Mackenzie@ft.com

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