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What to Expect in Barcelona, From A(T&T) to Z(TE)

Look for efforts to differentiate devices and a lot of talk about wearables.

Ina Fried

Two main themes — differentiation, or lack thereof, and wearables — will dominate discussions onstage and off next week in Barcelona, Spain, at the Mobile World Congress, the most influential mobile industry trade show of the year.

The annual event brings together nearly the entire wireless industry, from the world’s cellular carriers to the companies that make wireless devices and the infrastructure outfits whose gear allows the hardware to function. As with other tech industry events, Apple sits this one out.

At the event, thousands of companies will try to rise above the sea of new phones that resemble one another. What was once a sector with several strong players has become more cutthroat, with many players aiming at the same broad markets.

Android’s prevailing success is responsible for some of the homogeneity in current-generation phone design and function. Aside from Apple and Nokia, most of the world’s smartphones use Google’s mobile operating system at their core, with Android running on nearly four in five smartphones sold last year.

That, along with the move to large all-touch devices, means that from 10 feet away most modern smartphones look the same. Even up close they often share a common look and feel. What’s more, Google is pressuring device makers to conform more closely to its design and operations guidelines. With recent updates, Google has been pushing more Android phone makers into its proprietary Play Services, which require companies to use all of Google’s services and to prominently place them on the home screen.

The other big trend worth watching is the proliferation of mobile devices beyond the cellphone and tablet — especially wearables. It’s fair to say that the industry doesn’t yet know what consumers are willing to pay for, or even what they want. But that has not stopped companies from rushing out new gadgets. Most likely to debut a notable wearable would be Samsung, which is expected to introduce its Galaxy S5 smartphone and has said it will have new wearable products to accompany its flagship devices.

Beyond not knowing what shapes of wearables consumers will find appealing, the industry has yet to figure out what to do with all the data collected from these devices.

On the phone side, device makers have to deal with a smartphone market that is seeing the bulk of the growth at the ultra-competitive low end, while the most profitable parts of the market are controlled by Apple and Samsung.

To help set expectations, and get some of the news out of the way, here’s an alphabetical array of what we are expecting each of the major players to do in Barcelona.

Though mostly a U.S. player, AT&T tends to use the Mobile World Congress to talk about its international and business-to-business options. The big question is whether AT&T will make any moves to expand beyond its U.S. focus. The company has said it would consider international expansion if the right overseas acquisition presented itself.

With its market share dipping below “other” in several recent reports, the company’s newly installed CEO, John Chen, has his work cut out for him. We’re not necessarily expecting huge things in Barcelona, but Chen and his team will be at the event meeting with press and, presumably, with carriers and other partners.

Chipmaker Broadcom has several announcements planned at the show designed to demonstrate it is ready to challenge Qualcomm and power LTE phones, and it is also shaping up as a serious player in the wearable and Internet-of-things arenas. Wi-Fi is an area of strength for Broadcom, and it is expected to talk about how it plans to stay ahead there.

The company is expected to talk more about its next-generation “Merrifield” processor and also how it hopes to gain ground with the LTE chips it announced last year. Expect it to talk about the role of 64-bit computing in mobile as well. Of course, the big question is whether it can show any kind of serious momentum in phones and announce the kind of significant design wins needed to hit its ambitious target of powering 40 million tablets this year.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg is giving a keynote speech, but it remains to be seen which parts of mobile Facebook is tackling. The company once used a Mobile World Congress speech to throw its weight behind HTML 5 — a move it later admitted was among its biggest mistakes.

Don’t look for any big announcements from Google, although clearly there will be lots of new phones using Android. Android and Chrome chief Sundar Pichai will be there, but isn’t planning any public events, instead meeting with various partners and other companies in the Android ecosystem. And, of course, much of Google’s mobile work is always behind the scenes, whether it is hashing out new terms with partners or trying to convince regulators in Europe that it is playing fair.

The company heads into the Mobile World Congress in severe need of a comeback. CEO Peter Chou and Chairwoman Cher Wang are meeting with reporters on Tuesday, but if you’re looking for news about its latest flagship device, that news won’t come till March 25, when the company has scheduled a special unveiling event in New York and London. Although it has said it plans new devices in the midrange and high end of the market, indications are that the successors to the HTC One are more evolutionary than the kind of game changers needed to help the Taiwanese company regain its footing.

Though many are watching Samsung to see whether it will debut its next-generation Galaxy Gear smartwatch, there are sure to be other companies getting in on the wearable action, including Huawei. The Chinese networking and handset manufacturer is expected to introduce its first smartwatch at the show, along with a new smartphone and a couple of tablets.

With the Motorola-Lenovo deal still fresh and likely to face intense federal scrutiny, don’t expect much talk from Lenovo about its mobile strategy or device collaborations just yet. Lenovo will have new products, but they’ll probably just build on the company’s existing tablet line.

The Korean handset maker is known for trying to get its announcements out ahead of the show, and this year is no exception. Last week, the company announced its high-end G Pro 2 phone. The device features 4K video recording, a 5.9-inch screen and the ability to unlock the phone using a custom “knock.”

Like Broadcom, MediaTek is aiming to show it can compete with Qualcomm in the market for LTE phones. Earlier this month it announced a new eight-core chip due later this year that it hopes will allow it to at last crack the U.S. market as well as move higher up in the global mainstream Android phone market.

As we noted earlier, don’t expect to see any new Windows phone models debut in Barcelona. Furthermore, Microsoft isn’t planning to publicly offer full details on the next version of Windows Phone at the show (think April’s Build conference for that). However, Redmond’s top phone executives are expected to talk in broad strokes about where they are headed at a Sunday event with press and analysts.

Don’t expect any new products in Barcelona from Motorola, which is in the process of being sold to Lenovo. However, some execs will be meeting with the media and partners at the show. Until last week, CEO Dennis Woodside was set to preside over the media event, but his move to Dropbox means that Motorola’s Barcelona band will have to find another front man.

Firefox OS has hardly taken the world by storm, but Mozilla will be back in Barcelona to talk about where it is taking its browser-as-a-mobile-operating system effort.

The Finnish phone maker is making what is likely its last appearance before its handset unit is gobbled up by Microsoft. And it may well go out with a bang. For some time now, the company has been working on a low-end smartphone based on Android, but using a range of non-Google services. With no new Windows phones on tap, expect Nokia to spend most of its time at a Monday press conference on its feature phone and low-end smartphone business.

The chipmaker will be at the Mobile World Congress, but don’t expect any major announcements. Nvidia already made its big splash at CES with the introduction of its 192-core Tegra K1 mobile processor. The MWC will be another opportunity for the company to showcase the capabilities of its newest chipset, which should begin showing up in new products in the first half of the year.

The European carrier is expected to announce the details of two new own-brand smartphones, including a new affordable 4G model, and show off some sales figures highlighting that its private-label phones are the fastest-growing part of its business. The carrier also is likely to show a new feature for its Libon rich messaging app allowing it to exchange messages with any HTML5-capable device.

The chipmaker is expected to announce an update to the lowest-end of its Snapdragon line as well as talk about what it is doing at the high end in terms of LTE-advanced and LTE-broadcast features. One key here will be to see just how many of the new flagship devices use its chips. In recent years, Qualcomm has dominated the high-end, especially when it comes to LTE-capable devices.

Samsung hasn’t used the Mobile World Congress for a major product launch in awhile, but it is expected to use a Feb. 24 Unpacked event in Barcelona to make some major introductions, most likely including the Galaxy S5. Beyond the hardware, it will be worth scrutinizing just how much Samsung does on the custom software and services side. This has been an area where Samsung had been increasing efforts, though it recently agreed with Google to back off in certain areas.

After only showing off a smaller version of the Xperia Z1 at CES, it’s believed that Sony will use the Mobile World Congress to debut its next flagship Android handset, the Xperia Z2. According to various leaks, the smartphone will feature a slightly larger 5.2-inch display and a revamped user interface and could be headed to Verizon in the U.S.

ZTE had a rather busy CES, and the Mobile World Congress is shaping up to be the same. Like LG, the company announced its news ahead of the show, including the six-inch Grand Memo II LTE phablet and the ZTE Open C, one of the first devices running on Mozilla’s Firefox OS 1.3 operating system.

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