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iPhone dominates Mobile World Congress 2009 without Apple

While reports have suggested that Apple may attend next year's CES to "sit amongst its competition" in consumer electronics, the company has elected not to attend the GSMA Mobile World Congress being held in Barcelona this week. That hasn't stopped the iPhone from dominating talk at the mobile conference.

Journalists seem to find it hard to cover any news coming out of the event without mentioning Apple's smartphone by name as a point of reference, even when the announcements seemingly have nothing to do with Apple.

  • Skype's new bundling deals with handset makers Nokia and Sony Ericsson were nearly dismissed for being irrelevant because the addition of VoIP applications would only make their phones less attractive to the US mobile providers who control what units are sold here. The exception cited by reports is Apple's iPhone, which negotiated the availability VoIP over WiFi without losing AT&T's blessing or subsidy.
  • The announcement of Cisco's new WebEx software for modern BlackBerry, Nokia, and Samsung models also had to point out that the iPhone 3G had already gained those features via an earlier software release.
  • Nokia's unveiling of its Ovi software store and Microsoft's announcement of its plans to open SkyMarket later this year both required comparisons to Apple's barn storming iPhone App Store, which has already moved a half billion apps since it opened last year.
  • Similarly, Sony Ericsson's announcement of MediaGo, a new service that will enable users to upload full length movies to specific models of the company's phones via a PC, required comparison to the iPhone's integration with iTunes, which has been able to do that since it first appeared in 2007. MediaGo transcodes various videos into a format that will playback well on mobile devices, avoiding phone compatibility errors such as "incompatible format," "unsuitable frame rate," or "incorrect aspect ratio." iPhone users don't ever see those errors because Apple thought to specify a standardized, optimized video format for the iPhone: H.264; iTunes doesn't allow incompatible video formats to be loaded onto the iPhone without first passing through QuickTime for transcoding.
  • The next release of Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6.5, planned for the end of 2009, as well as the introduction of new devices planned to run it, including new models from LG, also required comparisons with the features already present in the iPhone OS.

The Mobile World Congress seems to serve as a worldwide report card outlining how well the iPhone's competitors (apart from Google's largely MIA Android) are doing in their efforts to catch up to Apple.

Speak software and carry a big schtick

Apple's conspicuous absence from the annual mobile conference should come as no surprise. While the company achieved spectacular sales figures at the launch of the iPhone 3G, Apple is still a small newcomer in the mobile industry and guards its public announcements carefully.

Much of the recent attention related to the iPhone has stemmed from the company's ability to implement the first very successful mobile software store, resulting in thousands of apps that turn the iPhone into anything that third party developers can imagine. While other mobile platforms claim larger software libraries, they can't claim games from top tier developers, nor similar flocks of attention from other mobile programmers attracted to the revenues Apple's secured store is collecting to fuel new development.

Apple also leverages its ability to whip up excitement among consumers to gain media attention right at the moment its new hardware releases are ready. That affords the company far more visibility than if it were to regularly issue piecemeal details on upcoming hardware releases.

With the third major revision to the iPhone expected in June, any announcements made this week by Apple would likely result in only dampening interest in the current model while robbing the company of any element of surprise once the next revision is ready to hit the market. Apple's dramatic releases provide the company with surges of attention right when it helps the company most.

Despite representing just 1% of the global market for all mobile phones, Apple briefly became the third-largest mobile phone supplier in terms of revenue during the company's fiscal fourth quarter of 2008.

That peak in sales at the launch of the iPhone 3G also gave Apple over 17% of the worldwide smartphone market according to Canalys, eclipsing even red hot RIM in unit shipments worldwide. It also pushed Apple over its goal (well ahead of schedule) of selling ten million units in its second year, something many analysts were expressing doubts about the company meeting even as late as early 2007.