MWC and what Mobile looked like 10 years ago

A look back at how the mobile ecosystem has evolved since the days of 3GSM in Cannes.

95,000 people are currently beginning to make their way to Barcelona for the annual pilgrimage of the mobile industry: Mobile World Congress (MWC).

As my proud collection below evidences, I’ve been hacking away in the mobile ecosystem for a while: if you ever coded for the WAP 1.2 push notification standard, my product team at MicroStrategy contributed to that. If you ever used a Windows Mobile smartphone, I worked on that. If you used Google search on your Blackberry or Nokia phones back in the day I lost hair and sleep cementing those partnerships. In other words, I’ve been hanging out with the crew at what used to be called “3GSM” for a while. The post below is simply a view back on what has changed from MWC in 2005/2006 to today.

Move from Cannes:

The “old school” mobile crew will remember the days when 3GSM was held in Cannes instead of Barcelona. 2006 was actually the first year that the conference was held at the Fira grounds (before they moved it to the monstrosity of a venue it is held in today).

Cannes was very different. More intimate (including the “intimacy” of over-cramped restaurantsin the Vieux port where even CEOs of global Telcos would be refused a table if they had not reserved. It also had some fun quirks: The parties were all held on the beachfront. As another mobile veteran, Frank Meehan, put it:

There was also the boat and boat meetings and parties… including the massive Siemens boat that was parked on the bay each year (which made for interesting meetings if the seas got choppy as they did in ‘05).

Platform Wars:

2005–06 was also the early days of the Platform wars for mobile (I was fighting on the Microsoft camp in those days). Nokia was the 80-pound gorilla in “Converged Mobile Devices.”

Andy Rubin had already founded Android but Google had yet to buy it (would do so in July,2005).

The association of Apple with phones was tied to the ROKR, a phone developed by Motorola which was the first to include iTunes support and launched in late 2005.

(So effectively Motorola helped the Apple team learn about how to build a phone and the complexity of mobile distribution channels, which they would circumvent years later when launching the first iPhone)

Shift of control from operators to platforms and app stores

In 2005, a lot of the power (and visibility at the show) lay with the operators and hardware manufacturers trying to sell to them. This is how the world of mobile apps worked (mostly) 10 years ago: Operators had the power. They would tell phone makers what software to install on the phone. They would decide what apps to pre-load and where to place them. Apps would offer either a fixed bounty or a revenue share to be pre-loaded (not too dissimilar to paying AOL to be included in their CD-ROMs in the late 90s). The kiss of death was being burring inside the “Apps” folder in a sub-category as every click would kill any chance of discoverability.

10 years ago at 3GSM 2006 Google began to rock the cradle by announcing the preloading of Google Mobile search with Motorola. Google (with insights from Nikesh Arora who had come from T-Mobile) began to understand the rise of mobile and the need to replicate their syndicated search (for operator-owned portals) and Toolbar (for OEMs) to bring an openly searchable mobile web to the user.

[NB: I interviewed with Google’s mobile team during the 2006 show and would join them later that year to help drive the OEM partnerships with OEMs around the world]

Google and the operators and OEMs were coming from two different perspectives. Google wanted an open and searchable web (and its ads against those). OEMs like Nokia and Blackberry were offering users a compressed version of the web (to help save their clients, the operators, expensive bandwidth). It was a philosophical fight of what the web should be on mobile. The outcome as we now know, is that consumers want a “real” web…And Android and the iPhone democratized that with webkit and a full HTML experience.

2006 marked the power shift from operator stacks to a more open model where users could search the broader web (and download Java files directly). Eventually this would lead to iPhone’s App Store and Google Play (and associated mobile advertising models like Admob’s) allowing app developers to more easily reach consumers.

Ease of development as stable platforms emerged

For all of those app developers out there complaining about the need to maintain experiences for varying screen sizes… You should feel lucky. Building and maintaining mobile apps to support the plethora of J2ME versions was a nightmare… and on top of that you had to consider other development enviornments like Symbian, Windows Mobile, Linux, RIM’s Java platform, etc etc

The mobile world has come a long way. MWC is now an event that brings together hardware and phone manufacturers with the millions of app developers, the platforms (like Google, Facebook) that help distribute them and, as of the last couple of years, a growing number of marketing executives who realize that mobile is a critical touch point with their customers. Unilever has, in recent years, held a leadership meeting of its global marketers alongside MWC proving the increasing importance of mobile as a channel.

And for all you members of the 3GSM old-school club I leave you with one word:

C-Boss

… I never did understand what exactly C-Boss was selling or why “Russian dancers” were meant to help them sell it.