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Telecom 99: The winners and the (many) losers

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Yes... there were sexy concept phones never to reach the retail market.... there were spandex-clad dance troupes celebrating Eastern European telecom companies nobody has ever heard of... there was vicious rumour-mongering and shameless over-hyping. Geneva 1999 was enginerd heaven. This wasn't the right place to argue that "winner-takes-all" concept in high technology is obsolete. Even though the crowds were huge, most third-tier pavilions like Hitachi and Bosch were graveyards of empty desolation. Even second-tier pavilions like Siemens had trouble attracting substantial traffic. On the other hand, some rudimentary combat skills were necessary to gain access to Motorola, Ericsson and Nokia. Motorola's edgy ad campaign was probably the best in town. Gritty, graffiti-style posters with a menacing message: "It's the end of the world as you know IT". I was hoping for an innovative inner-city gangsta theme at the pavilion, but it turned out to look like a production number from "Saturday Night Fever". Nevertheless, the wrist phone was a huge attraction and looked much better than the clunky Samsung version. Tiny V-series phones still extract that "ooh" reaction from much of the audience. The industry concern seemed to centre on Motorola's spectacularly bad network sales numbers announced during the Geneva meeting. The consumer focus is probably a necessary counterweight to the seriously underperforming infrastructure division. Paging unit and Iridium remain the two most malignant growths at Motorola - witness the defensive "It does work, too" ad campaign for Iridium in Geneva. So Motorola is now balancing between the good turn-around news (semiconductors-mobile phones) and the evil, decaying divisions (mobile networks-paging-satellite junk). To most people I talked to this adds up to two pluses and three minuses. Do the math. Ericsson previewed third generation phones - on a laptop simulation level. It drew considerable interest. The big GPRS push Ericsson is now making also created a buzz. The analyst meeting had a hostile tone, however. Ericsson's R380 WAP phone is probably the most anticipated smartphone model announced so far. It is genuinely compact and the display covers most of the surface. The problem here is Ericsson's tap dance about the shipping schedule. We might not see this in volume until early summer, which would spell trouble. Ericsson's mobile network division seems to be the talk of the industry, though. It has managed to maintain a dominant position in both Latin America and Asia, which is something no other company has been able pull off. This might become relevant in 2000-2002 - some of the competition seems to be waking up to that now. On balance, Ericsson's traditional wireline business seems even more moribund than last year. This is a time for tricky transitions. Nokia's pavilion was jam-packed by dignified professionals clawing to get their paws at the 8850 and 7110. I was mesmerized by Snake II... you can actually see the scales and the fangs of the damn creature, the display is that much better. There are now walls to make it harder to get at the apples. Some of the new WAP applications actually seem to have relevance. I liked the stock service where you can see the daily chart of a given share performance. Six lines of text is just enough to make the CNN service work. You get a menu of leading headlines and then choose which ones to read in detail. Detail meaning 3-6 sentences. It ain't WWW multi-media, but it's a whole lot better than existing short message services for mobile phones. Here's the key observation: even the existing, rudimentary text-messaging over mobile phones is a monster hit in Europe and Asia. In Britain, mobile message traffic is growing by nearly 1000 per cent over a 12 month-period *before* WAP. Yeah, that's three zeros. Top that, Internet over PC. So the comparison between WAP and laptop performance may be irrelevant. What counts is whether WAP can deliver a substantially improved performance over existing mobile text services. And there are reasons to believe that. Interestingly, Nokia's Thursday analyst presentation studiously avoided references to consumer gadgets, only mentioning them in passing. It was all about wireless LAN, IP, Bluetooth, 11 Mbps PC cards by 1Q 2000, etc. I sensed a serious annoyance at the "consumer product company" tag. Changing that preconception is probably going to be a tall order - perhaps that is Nokia's transition challenge of the moment. In general, Alcatel seems to be the most loathed company around right now. It had a hot 1998 mobile phone season, but has apparently lost momentum by clinging to the cheapie approach that worked so well last year. Its infrastructure division is widely derided and recent US acquisitions are deemed clueless even for a European telecom firm. Siemens may be getting a second wind - somewhat surprisingly, they seem to be doing well in Asian mobile network market and the new phones are hits. More importantly, Siemens is well-positioned to cash in on the wireless data phenom. Everyone is talking about colour displays. Siemens was the company to deliver the first commercially successful model. Siemens' US acquisitions were dissed, of course. But trying to find an American having something positive to say about a European IP-related telecom acquisition is as hard as trying to find a European with anything positive to say about the mobile infrastructure competence of Motorola, Nortel and Lucent. One of the bigger surprises was the hostility towards Cisco. Apparently the much-advertised deal with Telia is not what it could be - and the bad buzz may turn into a problem as Cisco continues to court traditional telecom operators. On the other hand, Lucent seems to be building positive momentum in the European infrastructure market. Which would be a good second act after their recent success in the North American market. Samsung talked big, but may be over-reaching with their massive consumer product program. Its WAP demo seemed low-end and plagued with long delays between access commands and the delivery of data to the mobile phone. Globalstar presentation broke the golden rule Nokia set for its sales personnel back in 1989 - never use both hands to lift the phone from the table. It sends the wrong message. Interestingly, the antenna volume of the Globalstar handset is bigger than the entire volume of the new Ericsson GSM-900/1900 worldphone previewed at Geneva. ® Related storiesThe Future is bright, the future is wireless The Survivor's Guide to Geneva 2003

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