All eyes were on the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week. The annual event has become a critical showcase for new technologies and a premier forum for lively discussions about all aspects of global mobile markets. All the key players are present - operators, handset manufacturers, platform and content companies, government and NGO representatives.
There were a number of hot topics at MWC 2015. Last-mile connectivity initiatives like Internet.org and Google's Loon never fail to garner attention, even though, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pointed out, 90% of the world's population already has access to mobile Internet coverage on their phones. Social media and “over the top” (OTT) apps are shifting operator revenues from voice and SMS to data, though some of the most prominent service providers are pushing for free access. (The money will come later, we promise!) Demand for smartphones continues to skyrocket, and low-cost models are flooding markets from Jo'berg to Jakarta. Creative partnerships and service bundles are blossoming in some countries, turning narrow service apps into potentially powerful, multi-industry platforms. And everyone from handset makers to app developers is going hyper-local, offering different languages, content, and business models to meet the quirky demands of local regulators, partners, and specific user groups.
Segmentation and hyper-localization are signs of market maturity, even though the global mobile market has a lot of growing up to do. This year's MWC featured a lot of jockeying for position in anticipation of a market full of people with smartphones, universal mobile broadband connectivity, and a broad range of mobile-based services. It was the digital equivalent of mourning a child's loss of innocence, while eagerly waiting for the day when he has his driver's license and you don't have to drive him around all day. The opportunity for philanthropic organizations in this environment is to facilitate the transition to maturity, especially in ways that are not obviously profitable for enterprise partners - training, capacity building, public service tie-ins to for-profit or OTT platforms, partner-driven initiatives, match-making, and entrepreneurial support. This is a critical role for the development community, aiding both end users and the companies that serve them. Jumping into maturity (or being dragged into it) can be traumatic, and every driving student can use a good co-pilot.