What Can We Expect At Mobile World Congress 2014?

Last year, when attending my tenth Congress in a row, I wrote that MWC 2013 would be more global and more disruptive than ever before. I believe the same will be true this year, with 2014 bringing a very important milestone in the shift to mobile: an install base of more than 2 billion smartphones globally. Mobile is transforming every industry by offering global reach and the ability to offer contextual services. That’s why we'll see many more marketers, agencies, business executives, and strategists attend the traditional telecom show.

Gone are the days when MWC was about operators' supremacy. As my colleague Dan Bieler summed it up in this blog post, telcos are increasingly being backed into a corner. I still remember this quote from Arun Sarin, the former CEO of Vodafone, in the Financial Times in November 2007: “Just the simple fact we have the customer and billing relationship is a hugely powerful thing that nobody can take away from us.” Really? Well, in the meantime, Apple and Google have created two powerful mobile platforms that have disrupted entire industries and enabled new entrants to connect directly to customers.

From a marketing and strategy perspective, I'd categorize the likely announcements in three main areas:

1)    The Asian Device Spec Fashion Week: Getting Lost In Device Translation

Year after year, MWC is still largely focused on spring/summer collection of new devices: quad-core or octa-core processors, metal or plastic, curved or flat screens, etc. The focus on hardware specs is way too high. Which device will be under the spotlight? Sony XPeria Z2, a new HTC M8, LG G2 Pro, or even a new smartwatch? Following Lenovo’s acquisition, the device world has shifted to Asia, and we’ll hear a lot about Huawei, ZTE, and the like. Given the amount of buzz on social media, expectations are high that Samsung’s new flagship device — the Galaxy S5 — will cast some shadows over the competition. In the light of Tizen’s likely failure, I'll pay attention to the extent to which Samsung will launch innovative software-driven experiences. Differentiation on hardware specs only is increasingly difficult; let’s learn from the lesson of how Sony should have been a digital contender, as explained by my colleague James McQuivey here.

2)    The Never-Ending Debate On The Third Mobile Ecosystem: Platforms Matter

After Firefox OS last year, expectations were high that Samsung would push for Tizen to reduce its dependency on Google’s Android. Lack of operator, developer, and media support, combined with Samsung’s lack of software DNA, will transform Tizen into a stillborn platform. Rumors that Nokia could launch an Android device will further call into question Microsoft’s ability to establish itself as the third mobile ecosystem. One option could be to roll it out for low-end Asha phones removing Google services, but at this stage, yet another U-turn in Nokia’s approach will be difficult to market. It will be interesting to hear the vision of Microsoft’s new CEO during what is likely to be his first major press conference (UPDATED: Satya Nadella will not be speaking at MWC this year). Despite about 10% market share in net new OS smartphone acquisitions in some countries, reach is not there yet. Perception of Nokia’s new Lumia flagship devices will be critical for Microsoft’s mobile ambition beyond 2014.

3)    The Growing Importance Of Mobile Marketing, Mobile Commerce, And The App Economy: Building Contextual Experiences On Top Of Connected Platforms

Beyond a myriad of innovative players in the space, from mobile DSPs to advanced analytics providers, it's likely we will see an even stronger presence of the marketing powerhouses. Think Visa, IBM, SAP, eBay/PayPal, and a few others. I expect a lot of emphasis this year on the convergence of mobile payments and location-based marketing, with a massive hype around iBeacon, especially its ability to kill NFC — a typical technology-centric debate at MWC. What I say is this: It’s not about the technology enablers; it's about the contextual experiences you build on top of them to engage with customers in their mobile moments. This is what really matters to marketers and business executives.

Thomas Husson is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research serving Marketing Leaders. Follow him on Twitter at @Thomas_Husson.