Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

The next big things in wireless

The Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona is the place to be to see what's coming soon to a cell phone near you.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
5 min read
The newly named Mobile World Congress kicks off Monday in Barcelona, Spain, where tens of thousands are expected to gather to show off what's new and hot in wireless in 2008.

The annual conference, known previously as 3GSM, has changed its name to reflect transformations in the industry as wireless technology evolves beyond third-generation cellular standards to the fourth generation.

Because the show is based in Europe and draws a significant number of attendees and exhibitors from Asia, where mobile technology is typically more advanced than in the North America, it often provides a sneak peek at technology and trends that will soon make it to the U.S. market.

Here's a look at some of the hot topics likely to come up at MWC this year.

WiMax versus LTE
The ink on the checks written to pay for mobile operators' 3G wireless networks is barely dry, and operators are already thinking of their next-generation networks. The industry seems have narrowed the technology choice to two: WiMax and Long-Term Evolution (LTE), which are both based on a modulation technique called Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing, or OFDM.

WiMax is further along in the standards process and has already gotten a lot of attention in the U.S. where No. 3 cellular operator Sprint Nextel has committed to spending $5 billion to build its next-generation service using the technology. Sprint is currently testing the technology in three cities: Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Chicago. And it has plans to roll out the service nationwide starting later this year. But Sprint's financial problems could derail the project. Rumors have circulated that the company might spin off the WiMax network known as Xohm and combine it with a network being built by Craig McCaw's Clearwire.

Meanwhile, the emerging LTE technology is gaining momentum. In November at the Mobile Asia Congress in Macau, the GSM Association threw its support behind LTE. A few weeks later, Verizon Wireless, the No. 2 wireless operator in the U.S., said it would use LTE for its 4G wireless network. AT&T, the largest mobile operator in the U.S., also has indicated it will use LTE.

Even though WiMax's future may look a bit precarious at the moment, several companies, from chip vendors to infrastructure providers, are showing off WiMax products and making announcements at Mobile World Congress.

Chipmaker Freescale Semiconductor plans to announce a WiMax "femtocell" access point reference design. Femtocells are radios used indoors to boost wireless signals. NXP Semiconductors said it's working with Intel on reference designs for a device that combines the GSM cellular EDGE technology with WiMax on a mobile device that can switch between the two networks.

Motorola plans to show off a new mobile WiMax PC card and broadband modem. The PCCw 200 PC card supports 2.5GHz and 3.5GHz in a single card, allowing laptop users to roam globally. The company's modem supports fixed wireless broadband connections and is also available in 2.5GHz and 3.5GHz, so it can be used in different parts of the world.

iPhone envy
Apple won't have a presence in Barcelona next week, but that doesn't mean that the iPhone won't be on the tip of everyone's tongue. Handset makers are sure to be introducing new phones with touch screens and other iPhone-like features such as enhanced browsers. Some Apple enthusiasts are hoping the company will finally announce the 3G version of the iPhone, although many others believe this is doubtful.

Mobile platform wars
The first Google Android prototypes are expected to be on display at Mobile World Congress. Dell and British mobile components maker ARM plan to demonstrate their prototypes. Google announced Android, an open software that can be used by handset manufacturers, in November. Products using Android are expected to hit the market later this year.

But as Google and its partners talk up Android, there's another open mobile platform that will be making a splash at the show. Earlier this week, the Limo Foundation, a global consortium of mobile carriers, chipmakers, and handset manufacturers developing cell phone technology based on Linux, said it will make its application programming interface available in March. Next week, the group is expected to announce some new members to the consortium, as it becomes the dominant open-source Linux platform for mobile phones. Several industry consortia are dedicated to putting open-source software onto handsets. But it looks like groups are starting to rally behind Limo as it pushes forward.

Mobile advertising
Once again, operators will be talking up mobile advertising, as they strive to find new ways to make money from their network investments. And with this there will be much talk about mobile search and tying advertising to search results. Location services also will be discussed as carriers look for ways to make advertising and search more relevant for mobile users.

Location and navigation
Location won't only be discussed in the context of advertising or search, but there will likely be more talk about using location technologies to improve navigation services. Nokia last year announced the 6110 Navigator phone and mapping service. In October, the company said it was buying digital map supplier Navteq for $8.1 billion. To show off its navigation prowess, Nokia has scheduled tours of Barcelona next week for journalists to test its navigation tools and service. So stay tuned for a first-hand account of how this service works in the real world.

Social networking
The social-networking craze has come to the mobile phone, and the topic promises to be a hot one at Mobile World Congress. There's a whole session dedicated to social networking at the show. And there will likely be a lot of announcements concerning cell phone makers partnering with popular social-networking sites, such as Facebook and Myspace.com, to make it easier for users to access those sites on their mobile phones. There will also likely be some announcements around making it easier to upload user-generated content, like photos and video, to mobile phones.

The developing world
With half the world's population expected to own at least one mobile phone by the middle of this year, operators and cell phone manufacturers are looking toward the developing world for growth. The market is already saturated in developed markets like North America, Europe, and parts of Asia, so it makes sense that companies would turn to developing countries where cell phone penetration is much less.

There will likely be a lot of talk around making phones affordable for consumers in the poorest countries in the world. But entertainment companies and other mobile content providers are also expected to look more closely at developing markets as they realize the potential of these untapped regions.