This story ran in the print edition of The Seattle Times on Feb. 15, 2011. -Sharon Chan
BARCELONA, Spain — The crowd outside the auditorium at Mobile World Congress on Monday was a restive mass of executives waiting to hear Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer. It was worse than the dressing-room line at Nordstrom Rack.
The pushing and shoving among men in suits to get a seat were a microcosm of the fierce competition and frenetic pace of a wireless industry here for its largest annual gathering. It was a stampede of the electronics industry to mobility.
The Mobile World Congress trade show, which started Monday, could draw as many as 53,000 attendees and 1,400 companies setting up booths and battling for sales and partnerships with hardware makers, software developers and wireless carriers. That compares with 49,000 attendees and 1,300 booths in 2010.
In addition to Ballmer, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo also spoke Monday.
With the industry drawing much of tech world’s attention, the world’s largest software company still had a lot of explaining to do about Windows Phone 7, the mobile operating system that started selling in October. The platform is growing slowly and has shipped 2 million copies to phone makers — the largest metric it has disclosed so far.
“We’re off to a strong start; we know we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Ballmer said in his speech.
But, no matter how Windows Phone 7 sales are characterized and despite Microsoft’s eyebrow-raising partnership announced Friday with Nokia, the platform faces huge challenges.
Ballmer’s speech was, at the end of the day, mostly a software update for an industry hungry for big technology leaps. This crowd has been spoiled by Apple’s steady stream of new products and Google’s stratospheric growth in mobile.
In fact, Google’s mobile platform, Android, seems ubiquitous at the show, the launchpad for new products from all corners.
Samsung, for instance, announced both a new Galaxy smartphone and tablet, only a few months after releasing its first one. Sony Ericsson announced a smartphones running PlayStation games is coming in March. The platform common to all of them: Android.
Chip maker Qualcomm promoted software-development kits for new technologies such as augmented reality, also running on Android. An example of augmented reality is the yellow first-down line TV viewers of football games see on their screens.
Apple, too, looms large over the show, even though it is not at the conference in an official or public way, with many companies showing software built on the iPhone and iPad.
By contrast, Microsoft had no new devices running Windows Phone 7 to show here, and Nokia has not said when its first Windows Phone will be ready.
Even more telling is both Apple and Google are the platforms for tablets most developers here are targeting — and tablets are the hot topic at the conference.
Microsoft had no specific news about an operating system for tablets. The last update came at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, when the company showed a very rough chip prototype for the next version of Windows on tablets.
With this as a backdrop, Ballmer drummed on the phrase “fast paced” in his speech to describe Microsoft’s mobile progress over the past 12 months.
The company announced plans for Windows Phone 7 about 12 months ago, began selling devices in the fall and on Friday announced the exclusive deal to put Windows Phone 7 on smartphones for the world’s largest phone maker, Nokia.
Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, formerly president of Microsoft’s Business division, joined Ballmer in the Monday appearance.
“The world is shifting from a battle of devices to a war of ecosystems,” he said. “… Microsoft and Nokia together represent a natural partnership.”
Ballmer shared a laundry list of updates coming to Windows Phone 7 this year in his speech. One, planned for March, will add a copy-and-paste feature for Windows Phone 7 users.
Later this year, Windows Phone 7 will get Twitter integration into its People Hub, its address book. When people pull up their address books on the phone, they will also see their most recent tweets. (Facebook is already integrated.)
Multitasking between programs is also coming to Windows Phone 7. Corporate Vice President Joe Belfiore showed the ability to pause and switch between two games on the phone.
Internet Explorer 9, Microsoft’s Web browser in progress, will have a version ready for Windows Phone 7 this year. The browser is a major update for Microsoft because it supports HTML5, a Web programming standard that lets developers build richer, more applike websites.
Microsoft will also expand the integration of SkyDrive on Windows Phone so people can access Office documents created in Office Web Apps on their phones.
Microsoft also showed Windows Phone 7 working with Xbox Kinect. In a video, a Windows Phone user controlled balls in an Xbox “Kinect Adventures” handball game while another player tried to hit them in a game.
“My sense is they’re doing better than people expected,” Will Stofega, an analyst with Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, said of Windows Phone 7. “People said they would sell 10,000 copies.”
He said the key is for Microsoft not to let Nokia get in the way of other phone makers such as Samsung and LG, which are already selling Windows Phones.