The HTC One smartphone is shown at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.(Photo: Rob Pegoraro, USA TODAY)
By Rob Pegoraro, Special for USA TODAY
BARCELONA -- The annual wireless-industry trade show happening here
this week is called Mobile World Congress, but it could also be fairly
labeled the Android Market.
The operating system that Google
launched on a single U.S. phone in 2008 has pushed every other
smartphone platform but iOS to the margins -- and Apple is sitting out
this show, as it does with most tech events it doesn't run.
big Android news here is bigness itself. A little over a year ago,
Samsung's Galaxy Note -- a phone whose 5.3-inch screen pushed its
dimensions toward those of a tablet -- popularized the "phablet"
concept, and then its 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II showed that a still-larger
screen would draw buyers. Other vendors have since busied themselves
rolling out plus-sized models to counter those of the Korean
Lenovo's K900 and LG's Optimus G Pro may merely
match the Note II's size, but the touchscreen on ZTE's Grand Memo spans
5.7 inches. And Huawei's Ascend Mate raises the ante yet again with its
6.1-in. display; it still, however, barely fits in a shirt pocket.
can't say that for Asus's new Fonepad. With its 7-inch screen (imagine
that the Nexus 7 tablet Asus builds for Google could also make phone
calls), it all but demands transportation in a purse or messenger bag.
In terms of relative size, it is to my head as my wife's iPhone 4 is to
our two-year-old's noggin when she plays with it.
will sell for $249 but doesn't have an announced carrier; the other
models don't have U.S. prices announced yet. Many phones introduced here
will reach other markets first as their manufacturers continue to
negotiate with U.S. carriers.)
For people with regulation-size
hands, phablets usually defy one-handed use -- a problem if, say, you're
a busy reporter trying to catch up on his e-mail while refueling with
an espresso in the Fira de Barcelona's capacious exhibit halls.
many users have apparently elected to trade away that option: Samsung
says it sold 3 million Note IIs in little over a month after its
release, although that's still far behind the 5 million iPhone 5s Apple
sold in that device's first weekend.
This shift may also speak to
decaying relevancy of voice calling for many phone users. The GSMA, the
London-based group that runs Mobile World Congress, announced Monday
that by 2018, mobile data revenues will top mobile voice worldwide, with
the U.S. crossing that threshold next year.
The other trend in Android concerns what fills those larger screens
-- an interface that can look distinctly estranged from the one on such
"pure Google" phones as the Nexus 4.
Having already pasted their
own front ends on Android's home screen, vendors are now taking
advantage of Android's open-source flexibility to push alterations
deeper into Google's software.
Many phones here, for instance,
toss aside Google's recent-apps button, which provides thumbnail views
of your open programs, in favor of a menu button. The HTC One's home
screen consists of a scrollable series of tiles representing news from
the world and from your friends, like Windows Phone's start screen and
the Flipboard news app before that, and Huawei's Ascend P2, introduced
at the show, ditches the "app drawer" listing all of your installed
The changes show some creativity but also chisel away
consistency. Each time you pick up a new Android phone, you should have
the same vast set of apps available but may have to relearn how you
Meanwhile, I have yet to see a non-Nexus phone here
running the 4.2 version of Android Google shipped in November. Phones
with the 4.1 release lose out on a nifty gesture-typing option, in which
you "write" words by tracing a line from character to character in the
onscreen keyboard, but also don't get Google's latest security fixes.
race to go beyond "Retina Display" resolution seems even less
productive. When LG felt compelled to use magnifying glasses to show off
the superiority of the Optimus Pro G's more than 400 pixels per inch
(the iPhone 5 packs in 326), you have to ask if anybody should care
about those extra pixels.
I'd happier to see phone vendors step up
their competition to extend the still-problematic battery life of
smartphones. Expect to see the term "mAh," short for milliamp hours, in
increasingly large type on spec sheets this year: 2,100 mAh, the
capacity of Samsung's Galaxy S III, now looks to be the floor for new
Android smartphones, with many phablets topping 3,000 mAh.
Windows Phone and BlackBerry's BlackBerry 10 constituted sideshows next
to Android (though Nokia's cheap, compact 520 provided a pleasant
counterpoint to the phablet fad), and Mozilla's intriguing Firefox OS
won't arrive in the U.S. until maybe next year.
But even without
an Apple exhibit on the floor, the volume and variety of companies
showing off cases, cables and covers for the iPhone -- as well as all
the iPhones in use by MWC attendees -- leave no doubt of the dent
Cupertino continues to make in the phone universe.