charles in charge
the elephant in the room (Mobile World Congress 2012)

At the end of our fourth day of running around La Fira for my first Mobile World Congress last week in Barcelona, I turned to my fellow foursquarers and joked, “Apple should come next year, get one of these big ass tents, and just stick the latest iPhone model in the center, on a pedestal, and call it a day.”

After a ton of meetings, a lotta tapas, and some late nights, I was pretty zonked and the comment above might not have been that funny, but I was simply reacting to what was, in my opinion, the biggest theme in Barcelona last week: the elephant in the room wasn’t actually in the room.

Among the humongous MWC presences and serious marketing spend from the likes of Google, Microsoft, Nokia, RIM, Samsung, Huawei & ZTE (these guys were particularly ubiquitous), every other OEM you can think of, and all the relevant mobile operators, there was nothing there to represent the vision out of the product gurus from Cupertino.

I understand that this isn’t news. Apple has long spurned trade shows such as CES, MWC, and others that are less relevant, but I think that Apple’s decision to have no presence at the most important international mobile event on the calendar makes a strong statement about how unconcerned they are regarding some powerful, competing forces in the mobile ecosystem.

There are still many parts of the world where an iPhone is unattainable (I learned last week that someone in Turkey has to pay an average of $1,200 to get one). While this aspirational product continues to improve, the typical consumer in less developed markets will be skipping the PC > dumb phone > smart phone flow we have all been through and will be getting their hands on a much more reasonably priced Chinese-made Android handset as soon as they can.

My buddy Dan Frommer did a nice job summarizing some of the key themes from this year’s MWC for ReadWriteWeb here, but I wanted to add a different slant on take-aways from Barcelona. These are more from the perspective of a biz dev guy running around, representing a developer, and meeting with folks from every element of the mobile world.

  • Android allows the conversation to take place - While we all build our platforms to be optimized on iOS, almost all of mobile business development (and all of the innovation at this year’s MWC) is happening on Android. While this leads to the obvious and important question of fragmentation, it also means that Android allows conversations to take place and partnerships to be developed.
  • Avoiding the “dumb pipe” - I am noticing a clear dichotomy developing among the big international carriers. Some have decided to allocate resources to develop their own products and services while others have taken the opposite approach, and will pick a handful of applications and platforms to distribute globally in the hopes of working together more closely in the future. The goal for either strategy is to make a dent the revenue void left by declining usage of non-data offerings.
  • Platform Platform Platform - The key for an application developer to participate in all of these conversations (with OEMs, carriers going it alone, and carriers looking to grow through partnership) is to be more than an application or service and become a legitimate platform. At foursquare, we are fortunate enough to have powerful APIs built on top of >30M venues and >1.5B check-ins that allow us to be part of these conversations. This wouldn’t be possible if we were just a check-in app.
  • NFC beyond payments - Everyone in Barcelona wanted to talk NFC. Many we spoke to cited impressive numbers of handsets sold into the market which are already NFC-enabled. This is all well and good, but if NFC is going to become a mainstream technology, which it has a chance to become soon in Asia, OEMs, carriers, and other members of the NFC food chain will have to find applications that leverage NFC beyond payments. This is a huge opportunity for developers to tackle if they want to bet on the technology.
  • Browser vs. Apps - OEM challengers and all carriers would love to see a WebOS develop and HTML5 technology allow developers like foursquare to have a single application that runs through the browsers of the future. I personally think this conversation will continue to be relevant only to a subset of apps out there that don’t have a certain level of complexity to them. Apps will be relevant for the foreseeable future, but many key mobile players will do their best to make the browser the platform.

Looking forward to seeing how this all shakes out by the time MWC 2013 rolls around.