Ask Maggie: On hot trends at Mobile World Congress

In this week's column, I share some thoughts about what I saw at Mobile World Congress and offer advice about whether to ditch Verizon's 3G wireless broadband for Sprint's 4G service.

BARCELONA, Spain--There are many reasons why I love Barcelona: the food, the wine, the art, the architecture--and of course, the mobile phones.

Ask Maggie

You didn't know Barcelona was a hotbed of activity for the mobile industry? Well, for a week every February, the GSM (Groupe Speciale Mobile) Association hosts the Mobile World Congress, the world's largest trade show and conference for the mobile industry. And the funky city on the Mediterranean is flooded with anyone and everyone in the mobile industry.

I've been lucky enough to attend the show for the past five years. And this year, I was publishing stories from the conference alongside my CNET colleagues Bonnie Cha, Kent German, Elinor Mills, and Stephen Shankland. In this week's Ask Maggie, I dish the dirt on the top trends from the show. I also offer advice about new Samsung phones on Sprint's network, and I give a reader some info about his options for wireless broadband.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question, please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

What was hot at Mobile World Congress?

Dear Maggie,
What were the biggest trends you saw at this year's Mobile World Congress? And what was the coolest phone you saw there?

Thanks,
Joe

Dear Joe,
This year the Mobile World Congress felt bigger than ever. The GSM Association said it was a record year. According to their stats, there were more than 60,000 people here.

Traditionally, the Mobile World Congress has been a show dominated by European and Asian companies and news. But this year there was some very cool stuff for the U.S. market.

In fact, I'd say a growing focus on the U.S. was one of two major trends I saw here. The other big trend was a much greater emphasis on software and "ecosystems."

So, the first trend: There's no question, the states are gaining importance in the mobile market. Historically, the U.S. was slow to adopt new wireless technologies. The major handset makers, with the exception of Motorola, all came from Europe and Asia. The most cutting-edge network technologies, such as 3G, were deployed first in Europe and Asia.

But that's changing. The companies that will likely have the most influence over the mobile market in the next five years are all based in North America:

  • Apple
  • Google
  • Microsoft
  • Research In Motion
What's more, the latest network technologies are also being deployed first in the U.S. For example, Verizon Wireless is one of the first wireless providers in the world to deploy LTE, the so-called 4G technology that most operators around the world will deploy over the next several years.

What does this mean for you, the consumer? Handset makers are already starting to adapt their strategies to this new reality. When I spoke to Sony Ericsson's CEO in Barcelona , he told me his company, which has traditionally introduced devices in Europe and Asia, will now start launching its hottest devices first in the U.S.

This is a major shift in the market. And it's important for U.S. consumers, because it means that instead of having to wait a year or two for some of the coolest new phones and tablets, we'll be getting them first.

The other major trend I noticed at this year's show is that the mobile market is now all about software "platforms," or as Nokia's CEO Stephen Elop kept saying, "ecosystems."

Hardware will still be important, but a great deal of the user experience will be tied to the software platform the hardware uses. This will dictate which apps and games can be used on the phone, as well as the feature sets.

As a sort of testament to the importance of mobile platforms, the GSMA voted Apple's iPhone 4 the best mobile device of the year, even though Apple doesn't participate in MWC. And the Google Android operating system, which has gained a great deal of momentum in the past 12 months, dominated the MWC show with a massive booth that played host to 50 of its top developers. The booth was a fun place to explore the Android platform, complete with an actual slide that you could zoom down from the second level of the booth.

So which device caught my eye at the show? The LG Optimus 3D. I'm not a huge fan of 3D, and to be honest, I'm not sure I'd want a 3D TV or a 3D phone. But when I saw the new LG Optimus 3D at the booth at MWC, it was pretty cool. LG set up a demonstration that showed video of someone paddling a boat through the waves and scenes of big waves and surfing. The images don't pop out at you, but there is an added third dimension to the picture.

Unlike with the 3D TVs sold today, you don't need to wear a set of glasses to get the 3D effect. But the images are best viewed when looking at the device straight on. If you are off to the side too much, they get kind of blurry, and it gave me a slight headache.

Kent German, a CNET Reviews editor, was also impressed, even though he admitted he wouldn't likely use the 3D option very often. Anyway, the LG Optimus 3D was definitely a cool gadget to see at the show, but not something I would recommend for everyone. Besides, LG hasn't announced when or if the device will come to the U.S.

Deciding on a Samsung device

Dear Maggie,
I just upgraded my wife to an Epic 4G from a Samsung Moment. Now it is my turn. I have been doing a lot of research on the Epic. And I'm not sure I should go with it. I need a physical keyboard and I like the larger screen. But I've seen lots of complaints online about the Epic's battery life as well as the Android updates for Samsung phones (2.2).

I live in an area with great 4G coverage, so I guess that's good. Should I go for the Epic 4G now or did Samsung announce anything at Mobile World Congress that I should wait for? Also do you anticipate any price drops for Sprint Android phones (i.e., Epic, Evo) soon? Please help.

Thanks,
Jonathan

Dear Jonathan,
The only smartphone Samsung introduced at Mobile World Congress was the Galaxy S II, which is a second generation device that like the Epic uses the Android operating system. There were some nice enhancements to this phone, such as a dual-core processor and the latest version of Android 2.3 Gingerbread. But this device doesn't have a keyboard, which you said you wanted. Also, this phone is shipping first in Europe and Asia, and there's no word yet on when it will come to the U.S.

As for the battery life of the Samsung Epic and problems with software updates, these indeed are issues many users complain about. Unfortunately, many of the first generation 4G devices suffer from battery life problems. But the fact that you say there's good 4G coverage in your area is a positive sign, because phones use up less battery if they have a strong network connection. The weaker the cellular signal, the more power is needed from the device to connect to the cell tower.

If your wife already has the Epic, I'd see if any of the problems people complain about on the forum are actually an issue for you. Sprint will likely introduce new phones at the CTIA trade show that's happening at the end of March in Orlando, Fla. So you might want to wait until then to make your decision.

As for pricing of the Evo and Epic, I don't have any inside knowledge about price reductions. But as new 4G smartphones are introduced on Sprint's network, my guess is that Sprint will lower the price of the older generation products. If that's the case, you might be able to get a good deal on one of these phones. Of course, a newer device is likely to have better battery life and to offer the most up-to-date software.

Choosing a wireless broadband service

Dear Maggie,
I live in a rural area of upstate New York where DSL or cable for Internet access is not available. The only options we have for Internet are cellular broadband service or satellite broadband.

Currently, I have a 3G Verizon USB data stick that is grandfathered into an unlimited data plan. I inquired about whether I could retain that status if I upgrade to 4G LTE when that service becomes available later this year in our area, but I was told probably not.

Sprint currently offers a USB data stick that has both 3G and 4G WiMax service. There's a 5 gigabyte cap on the 3G service, but 4G is unlimited. So I'm considering getting one now in case they discontinue the no-cap limit on 4G later.

I'm not sure about coverage though. The sales guy I talked to gushed about how rapidly they're converting the Nextel towers they have. But then he said they also used some Verizon Wireless towers. I know that Sprint has partnered with Clearwire for 4G, but why are they connecting to Verizon?

And do you think I should give up my Verizon 3G wireless broadband service for Sprint's 3G/4G service? I'm nervous about Sprint's coverage.

Thanks,
Art

Dear Art,
When carriers don't have cell towers or coverage in a rural area, they sometimes enter a roaming agreement with another carrier who uses similar spectrum and the same network technology. Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel are both CDMA carriers, so Sprint is likely using Verizon's networks in places where it doesn't have coverage. In the old days, you would have been charged additional "roaming" fees. But today, network roaming is usually bundled into your service, provided you use your carrier's network more than you are roaming on another network. So that makes sense that Sprint would do that.

I also think you are wise to be cautious about the coverage issues. It's hard for me to say whether Sprint has the 4G wireless coverage in your area, because I don't know exactly where you live. But you can check out the coverage map on the company's Web site. You said you're from upstate New York, and judging from the map it does look like there's 4G coverage in some spots.

But the spectrum that Sprint and its partner Clearwire are using to build the network is at a high frequency: 2.5GHz. This means that it can't travel really long distances and can't penetrate obstacles as well as low frequency bandwidth. Verizon Wireless is using 700MHz spectrum to build its LTE 4G network, so it's likely that once that network is built in your area the signal will travel further than what's available from Sprint/Clearwire. This might mean that you will have better coverage from Verizon's 4G service than you will from Sprint's service.

My suggestion to you is to first find someone you know with the Sprint 4G service in your area. Find out how it's working for them. Then I'd really grill the Sprint salesperson about coverage. Most wireless carriers will let you return your device and cancel your service within 30 days of purchase. So I'd suggest you buy the 3G/4G Sprint service to see if it works well for you. If it does, then cancel the Verizon service and use the Sprint service. If it doesn't, take it back and keep the Verizon service.

But I wouldn't cancel the Verizon service until you know for sure that the Sprint 4G service will work for you. If what you say is accurate and you truly have an unlimited plan on your Verizon 3G data stick, then you have a very good deal with Verizon. I was under the impression that if you read the small print of your contract, that even so-called unlimited customers were actually restricted to 5MB of data per month using 3G wireless data sticks. After the company was criticized for marketing the service as unlimited when it was really restricted to 5GB, it started including the 5GB limit in its marketing material. I know the LTE 4G data stick is limited to 5GB, which costs $50 per month. You can get 10GB of data for $80 a month. Customers who exceed this limit will be charged $10 for every 1GB that goes over the limit. I'm not sure what your monthly usage is, but you might be under those caps.

 

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