I spent last week in Barcelona, sampling the fleshpots at night and the oh so wonderful toys and gadgets of Mobile World by day. I think I'd like to go back to Barcelona sometime when it isn't filled with a gazillion cell phone fanatics because they did rather detract from the ambiance, as did the adverts for unfortunately named devices such as the "Viewty" that plastered Barcelona's busses. Not to mention other adverts on massive hoardings around the show itself.
This year the show was even bigger than before but I don't think they can really grow it much further - at least I hope not.
In gadget news, there was a heartening (to me) resurgence in visibility of alternative manufacturers from the extremely tiny Neo pictured on the right to phones with built in cryptographic circuitry and other tricks. Interestingly amongst companies notable by their lack of attendence (lack of stand anyway) was Apple. I say interestingly because it seemed like the iPhone was the poseur's gadget of choice. Amusingly amongst noted iPhone users were representatives from carriers in certain markets (e.g. Bulgaria) where I don't think the iPhone is officially for sale. Still having seen the iPhone I don't want one. It is undoubtedly terribly clever and has some neat ideas but when I actually played aorund with one at the T Mobile hospitality tent I was distinctly unimpressed with its usability. For people who want to do real mobile data activities rather than show off there were a number of gadgets that seemed (to me) to be rather more practical.
Firstly there was the Datawind Pocket Surfer. This GPRS connected device uses some proprietary compression scheme to seriously speed up its surfing and was, in the brief few minutes I had to play with it, not much slower than your average broadband network. The major drawback is that it seems to be an entirely closed system so you can't connect it to other devices (e.g. a laptop) and you can't download or run unapproved applications (skype or an ebook reader perhaps?) on it. All in all it is rather reminiscent of the iPhone in philosophy, just a bigger device with a keyboard from a company no one has ever heard of. A side note - the folks at the Datawind stand were clear that they had got some major (Taiwanese?) device manaufacturer to design and build the hardware which they then resell via mobile operators as part of a package. I would guess it costs less to make than an eee - though perhaps not much less - and while I don't know its precise memory/flash etc. capacity we're at the stage where a wholesale $100 or so will get you some pretty decent hardware.
Then there was the readius - this isn't quite out yet and unfortunately my camera didn't work when I tried to take a picture. It is the productized version of the foldable eInk screen that was displayed a year ago by polymer vision. What the folks at polymer vision have done is pretty remarkable - the product is in many ways a kindle killer - but they've extended the phone part so you can actually take and receive calls on it. You can also read blogs, newspapers etc. as well as download books, listen to music etc. etc. Its also small. Folded up it is comparable in size to a standard 3G phone - 115 x 57 x 21 mm - while unfolded it has a 5 inch diagonal 320x240px display. This is less than the kindle (6 inch - 600 x 800px) but is, from what I could see, entirely sufficient to read on. The Readius also offers 16 greytones instead of 4 on the kindle. Compared to the iPhone? well its a 3G device so it loads web pages quicker. The display is physically bigger - the iPhone's 800x480px display has lots of pixels in a tiny 3.5 inch display - and since it is eInk based doesn't need a backlight. I don't think the readius is perfect - a numerical keypad would have been nice for example - but it is a neat bit of kit.
There were also some totally useless windows CE based smartphones as well as various blackberries all or which looked like total pants. I can't really imagine any of them - even the smarter Nokia version - being terribly useful to anyone with average sized fingers. If Nokia extend the N810 to become an actual GPRS/UMTS device then that would be interesting. The 810, like the eee and the iPhone has a screen of 800x480 pixels and its display size is somewhere between the two. The poky keyboard that slides out is usable and not much different to the one on the infamous Nokia brick (you won't be setting typing records but you'll be typing faster than on anything else the same size or smaller - only the eee and the Pocketsurfer are bigger) and the product seems to be pretty solid. Aside from its lack of GPRS/UMTS the other gripe with the 810 is that it apparently has a fairly short battery life, almost as bad as the eee's (see below).
Finally there is the eee. Asus weren't exhibiting at the show but I was far from the only person to be wandering around with an eee and over drinks at the ETSI stand a fellow eee user told me that the Huawei/Vodafone 3G USB stick worked fine with Ubuntu on the eee (huawei have the drivers somewhere). The same gentleman told me that the best place to get the contract to use the stick if you roam a lot was Germany as Vodafone.de is offering a highly attractive data rate. The one problem that the eee has is battery life. If you have wifi enabled (forget a USB stick just the built in wifi) then you're looking at about 2 hours of usage. Perhaps worse, my colleague discovered that his eee with the standard Xandros distro didn't seem to properly suspend when the lid was closed - meaning that you end up getting 5 minutes of actual use out of the eee. I'm using Xubuntu and having less of a problem but I'll agree that the suspend power consumption could be lower.
Moving on to lighter topics. The male attendees (i.e. about 90%) clearly seemed to welcome the return of the booth babe. The tiny Neo smartphone mentioned above, was publicised by some "fully featured" young ladies wandering around and they were far from alone. Perennial boothbabe vendor CBOSS went for a flamenco look this year and very nice they looked too. And there were others. In most cases I have no idea what the company providing the eyecandy was actually trying to sell (or even in one case what company they were representing). For the ladies and gays there was a weedy superhero guy wandering around with a rather embarassing male camel-toe - he clearly figured this out and for much of the show walked around with his cloak covering his groin so that he looked like a cross between superman and a flasher in a plastic mac down in the park.
One problem with the show was the lack of decent internet access. Phone access (voice calls and GPRS at least) was excellent but wifi access was the pits and the show charged stands £900 (€1300 ish) for ethernet internet access. The show allegedly had a for pay wifi service but in fact that was more of a kind of torture because you could never quite get to a login page where you could actually submit your credit card details. The quality wifi it turned out was at the T mobile hospitality tent where it was free and not fighting for spectrum with about 50 other wifi networks. I'm not clear why T-mobile had a hospitality tent but I certainly appreciated its wifi and free soft drinks.
Away from the show there were apparently various security incidents with people being mugged, losing laptops etc. Barcelona is not the world's safest city and an influx of tens of thousands of people carrying all sorts of portable electronic toys clearly meant that a few people were going to encounter some of Barcelona's freelance wealth redistribution folks. It is clear to me that Barcelona is not a place where you can wander where you like with impunity but I have certainly felt just as wary in London, Nice, Milan and Paris to pick various European cities. Having said that I, personally, felt pretty safe in Barcelona even in the dodgier inner city bits (El Raval and the Gothc quarter near where we were staying) but then I'm a fit largish male and I made sure not to be displaying my bling or otherwise acting like an idiot.
There was also the legal robbery of certain segments of the service industry. Hotel prices rose significantly Monday-Wednesday: our fairly grungy 2* hotel was a good example charging €110 (ish) for those three nights and a mere €70 (ish) for Thursday. And I'm pretty sure the restaurants did the same: meals that I would have thought would have cost say €30 a head seemed somehow to end up at over €50 a head and so on. However I personally do not complain too much here. This was the law of supply and demand coming into operation and I'm not really sure how else you make sure that non conference attendees are incentivized to not visit at that time.
As a final note, the people that didn't appear to be ripping off the punters were the taxi drivers: rides that in Nice would have mysteriously ended up costing €25 even though you could have sworn the meter sad €13.65 last time you looked at it really did cost €13.65 when you had to pay. Of course they probably didn't need to. They must have been coining it just from the number of people trying to use them.