The Not So Obvious And Mobile World Congress

With my first MWC in Barcelona behind me, I thought I’d write some quick observations in a new format: the easy (obvious) conclusion from walking around and meeting with folks, followed by the more nuanced interpretation after having caught up on sleep and thought a little bit harder about things.

Easy conclusion: In the era of blogs and Twitter, travelling all the way to Barcelona to hear about the future of the mobile world is a waste of jet fuel.

Nuanced: If you care about mobile, this is the one conference to attend all year. Apple may not have been on hand to accept its “Best Device” award for the iPhone 4 but whether you care about the operators, device makers, or even the new kings of Applandia, you’ll never get as high density of interesting folks to see. Plus, because the conference is done with a European sensitivity, you can avoid that “I’m about to get crushed” feeling that you get at CES both at the conference and at the various evening after parties.

Easy conclusion: Carriers are quickly becoming the dumb pipes they deserve to be— the future belongs to the citizens of Applandia and the chiclet-sized paradise they are going to deliver us into. Meeting with Vodafone? Pfff— it was way cooler to run into the CEO of Rovio (Angry Birds).

Nuanced: Every app maker I ran into at the show was either coming from, going to, or really looking forward to, a meeting with a carrier. And not just the up-and-comming hopefuls but also the guys who’ve already shipped millions of units and (in some cases) become household brands. Why? Big fat piles of money. And the fact that three years into the smartphone revolution, there isn’t a single sleeping giant left where the carriers are concerned (or at least I didn’t meet them). Dumb pipes? Maybe if you laid over in Amsterdam with a few hours to kill. Otherwise the folks getting ~$100/month from the “subscribers” are still pretty meaningful in this game.

Easy conclusion: The mobile OS game is done and its a two horse race: Android for the volume play and iOS for the high-end Apple faithful. RIM is decaying with the half-life of a Uranium isotope and everyone else should just go home (sorry Winokia and HP).

Nuanced: Here I sort of half agree in that I think Winokia and HP are too little too late to matter (though I will admit that for now RIM seems like a big wildcard). Where it gets trickier though is that it’s really hard to see Android being the same as everyone else at the rodeo. It’s more movement than operating system in the way that we’ve traditionally thought of it: device makers, carriers, and even consumers are excited about it because it seems to make the whole mobile thing so easy. To that end, it was hard to argue with the amazing booth (and corresponding party) that Google put on to show that this was a movement that was here to stay.

And still, I can’t help but wonder about the comment that a friend made as we sat on the second floor of the booth watching the masses of developers and device makers sliding down the curvey dot-com era slide into commoditized pit of Android phones and tablets: “Look at all of these sheep on the way to the slaughterhouse,” he said to me, “not realising that they are going to race to the bottom when it comes to margins in this business.”

He was half right in that I think all of these tier one and tier two device makers are in a race to the bottom. But what seems more interesting is thinking about what their likely response will be when they fully realise that this is where they will end up without doing something to differentiate their product. INQ “Facebook” Android-powered phones? Nokia’s act three after Windokia fails to deliver? Straight up forks of Android by people who get the balls to actually start writing software again?

As Horace writes, it is hard to call this particular movie over when it just started and when the two “dominant” players didn’t even exist three years ago. Instead it’s worth thinking about the Android explosion as one of these industry redefining movements that will leave a whole new world in its wake. Much like Linux did in the datacenter, we’ll probably end up looking at a whole class of new winners when the dust settles which no one would have ever foreseen by looking at Android as simply the “mass market” iOS play. It’s hard to see who they will be— though what is not hard to see is that it won’t be the folks playing the Apple game a few years behind with their $800 tablets and undifferentiated phones. At least not in this round.

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