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Going Mobile in Barcelona

In a "best of times, worst of times" scenario, this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, was beneficial for those companies that made the show. In fact, with the exception of a few key initiatives like Long Term Evolution (LTE), HD video delivery to the mobile handset, and a push to jointly develop a universal charger for all handsets, the mood at MWC2009 was somewhat more muted, although the official tallies show that more than 40,000 attendees made their way to Barcelona for this year's event.

While the show floor was a bit contracted and there were a number of last-minute empty booths, the event proved to contain quality leads for streaming product and service providers.

"The first day was a bit slow," said Nikos Kyriopoulos, product marketing manager for Media Excel, "but the leads were quality leads and with overall traffic picking up on the second day, it's turning out to be a good show for us, especially since we were able to move to a more visible location."

Like other companies in the streaming space, Media Excel was taking advantage of the time to show off new concepts. On2 also showed off its 1080p embedded decoding solution for low-power portable devices, MobiTV made the rounds with a concept they should launch within the next few weeks, and Mirial showed an advanced version of its two-way streaming solution for mobile collaborators. Texas Instruments even got into the concept game, showing high-quality projection capabilities integrated into concept phones thanks to TI's pico DLP projector advancements.

As a sign of the times, a series of panels and presentations were held around the concept of venture capital funding for mobile startups. These "Mobile and the World Economy" sessions started with the premise that the financial crisis currently taking place is global in scope, no industry will remain unchanged and that it has already begun to be shown in the mobile industry has already with revenue warnings, slower sales and reduced budgets.

The latter topic—reduced budgets—was a key point in two presentations: "Securing Funding and Surviving the Credit Crunch," presented by Richard Price of Lloyds TSB, as well as a presentation by Rich Wong, managing director of mobile at VC firm Accel.

Wong's presentation, titled "The VC Viewpoint - Is Mobile An Attractive Investment?" and reported on the front page of the following day's show daily, was key for its pointed request to the telecom giants to keep acquisition budgets intact during this phase of fiscal uncertainty. Wong argued that a known lack of acquisition strategy by telecoms would stifle the VC funding for startups in the mobile space, as most of these companies would see acquisition as their exit strategy.

Innovation was very much alive in the mobile startup space, though, as the Mobile Innovation Awards finalists from the past year were announced in January and then the winners were announced early on at the show. Two companies stood out: first, PopCatcher, which catches and records streams of radio play and then converts them over to MP3 files for portable media playback, received an Innovation Award for simplifying the process. Second, fring, a voice over IP company that is branching into video delivery through its application, also won the Mobile Monday Community Award in the emerging startups category. The fring product has seen widespread adoption across multiple mobile handset operating systems, including Symbian, Windows Mobile, and Apple's iPhone OS X derivative.

While Apple didn't attend the show, the lack of an Apple booth didn't mitigate the amount of publicity the company received, especially as competitors began showing off application stores. Nokia relaunched a modified Ovi application store, drawing comparisons to Apple's smaller market share but higher product-revenue-sharing scheme, which Apple recently announced had hit 15,000 available applications and 500 million downloads over a six month launch period.

Strategy Analytics cites the mobile content market as having a combined annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18% in 2009, rising to $67 billion. The mobile content market includes downloadable games, ringtones, wallpapers, video, mobile television, text alerts and mobile web browsing.

Along with Nokia, as a way to push funding for its expanding line of Flash Players on mobile handsets, Adobe promoted the Adobe-backed Open Screen Project, announcing a $10 million Open Screen Project fund.

With a goal of pushing Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) that can funding on the desktop or mobile device, Adobe's announcement is intended to jumpstart development of products using Adobe's Flash platform. This one-two punch aimed at Apple and Google, at least from Nokia's standpoint, will come in the form of grants rather than investments or loans.

"This is an effort to foster the creation, distribution and marketing of applications," said Anup Murarka, director of partner development and technology strategy for Adobe's Platform Business Unit. "As a vehicle for grants, it is not a VC fund."

Adobe and Nokia both expect additional partners—currently the Open Screen Project initiative has 20 members—to help expand the fund. Adobe also announced plans to bring the Flash Player to Palm's highly anticipated Pre phone, which uses a Linux-based operating system.

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer also announced a Windows Marketplace for Mobile application store, following the lead of Apple and Nokia and the impending Research In Motion/Blackberry applications store. Microsoft's move into championing Silverlight RIAs makes the applications store a natural fit when it launches later this year in tandem with the new Windows Mobile 6.5 mobile operating system.

Finally a mobile show wouldn't be complete without the mention of at least one new handset. As rumblings start to grow for integration of high definition video capture and transmission—powered by new technologies such as TI's OMAP 4 that integrates ARM and DSP capabilities together on a single chipset—the world's first handset capable of capturing 720p video was revealed by Samsung. The OmniaHD is expected to ship within the next two months, accelerating the need for modified data plans to handle larger video file transmissions.

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