Feeling the Love at Mobile World Congress 2011

We're in romantic Barcelona, it's Valentine's day, and love is in the air. Specifically, if you're Steve Ballmer giving today's keynote, a whole lotta love for: Windows Phone 7, app and development partners, device partners, carriers, ecosystems, design and user experience, and especially love for Nokia. Stephen Elop, CEO of Nokia, returned the love by appearing on stage to give a rousing defense of the new Microsoft/Nokia partnership.

Ballmer was in a somewhat humble mood today, still intense and energetic, but recognizing that "we're off to a good start" with Windows Phone 7, but that "we know we've got a lot of work to do." In particular this means work with software developers to get the all-important apps count up from the current 8,000 ("It's climing fast" he said), with device makers, and with carriers. In a dig at Android, Ballmer talked about how Microsoft is trying to avoid fragmentation of the experience (something which the old Windows Mobile system suffered from, and which has led Microsoft to take a more controlled approach to this time).

The play here clearly is that Microsoft is the third player (BlackBerry, HP both implicitly out of the running) that can prevent a duopoly from Apple and Google, and keep the ecosystem struggle competitive by "giving people choice".

Elop also argued the same theme, acknowledging carriers' fears over becoming comoditized bit-pipes, and noting Nokia's history of being what he described as the friendliest of device partners to carriers.

Both Ballmer and Elop made note of Nokia's industrial design, and talk about quality of user experience ran throughout all the demos of the current and next gen version of WP7. They get it - the challenge now is scale, and getting to scale quickly.

Elop's phrase that the world has changed from being a battle between products to a war between ecosystems neatly sums up much of what is top-of-mind for many people here at Mobile World Congress. It's no longer (just) about competing on features and price - things which are relatively easy to copy from competitors - it's now about having a compelling ecosystem of services and capabilities provided by a wide range of partners and developers. Once an ecosystem gets momentum, it's exponentially more difficult to catch up than it is to fast-follow a specific feature.

Every company from the smallest to the largest is anxiously trying to predict how the ecosystems are shaping up, what piece of them they need to try and take on in order to be competitive, and nervously placing bets about which horses they should back. Right now things are so in flux that almost anything could be true 12 months from now.

Ballmer closed his speech by saying "2011 is shaping up to be a fast-paced year." An understatement to be sure.

One other observation from the live demo portion of the Microsoft keynote - I find it amusing how overhead projectors are making a comeback. These old-school devices which have largely been confined to the dustbin of history and replaced by digital projectors, are suddenly the device of choice for demo-ing touchscreen devices to large audience. Humorously incongruous.

File Under "Misc."

Most of my day was taken up running a brainstorming workshop (using frog design's frogThink methodology) on the topic of connected devices, and I had relatively little time to cruise the floor. But a few miscellaneous things that caught my eye:

I had a quick play with a tablet running the latest Android OS, Honeycomb, and came away impressed. It really is a very different experience than using an iPad. The image that came to mind is that it makes the iPad feel like Duplo - those large-scale Lego bricks for toddlers: toy-like, kind of clumsy. But it's too early to tell if Honeycomb goes too far in the other direction and over-complicates the experience. Still, it's a convincing alternative to the iPad paradigm.

Dolby was demo-ing a Nokia N8 with HDMI output to a large LCD TV and 5.1 surround sound system, running through an Onkyo receiver. Most people at the stand were doing double-takes when they realized that the movie (Tron) high quality video and surround sound was coming from the phone. Just another sign that the phone is becoming the catch-all container for media, and that the quality is going to be far better in the future than the low-res experience we are used to so far.

I listened for a while to a presentation by an IBM engineer about Watson, the natural-language question and answer system they have been working on for a few years. Tonight, Watson is going up against two former champions of the popular American quiz-show Jeopardy!, in a pretty amazing test of artificial intelligence. (Read more about Watson's practice run at Wired.) Now this was an engineer's presentation, for engineers. It has to be the least glossy presentation at MWC today, with way more detail than could be absorbed by almost anyone at 5pm on a noisy, crowded convention floor. Check out the graph that appeared a dozen slides in. Still, Watson is an impressive technology, and IBM is angling for it to become the next generation interface for search, and you can clearly see how it will be useful in mobile applications (search, local contextual recommendations, voice command, etc.). Jeopardy! is just the "advertisement" - it's not just a stunt, IBM wants to turn this into a real business.

File Under "Eew"

Lastly, if you're concerned about catching a cold or some other communicable disease, stay away from MWC...especially all the touchscreen devices. Who knows where all those fingers of 50,000 attendees swiping the screen before you have been!

That's all for today, I'll post more observations from the show tomorrow!


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