Why mobile phones look set to audition for Hollywood

As mobile phone screens look poised to join the big boys of cinema and television, operators look forward to an injection of glamour at their shindig in Barcelona
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The Independent Online

It's a million miles from Butch Cassidy but the Sundance Kid will be shooting from the hip this week, with the propeller-headed geeks of a telecommunications conference replacing the gunslingers of the last-chance saloon.

The presence of Robert Redford – film star and founder of one of the world's most prestigious independent film festivals – at the world's biggest mobile telecoms get-together shows just how much times are changing. Content, media and entertainment (CME) are converging so quickly with the cellular phone industry that what you are watching and hearing on your mobile today will have changed by tomorrow.

This weekend, telecoms executives from all over the world are winging into Barcelona for their annual homage to Catalonia – or, more specifically, the Mobile World Congress. This is a monster of an event that attracts some 55,000 delegates and visitors to what, given the trendy nature of the cellular industry, is the strangely old-fashioned and rather faded rococo splendour of the National Palace of Barcelona and the Fira showground in Montjuic.

As usual, delegates will listen to worthy presentations by the great and the good and will spend a lot of time discussing strategies to bring basic mobile services to those huge swaths of the world that still have no telecoms infrastructure. But many will also queue starry-eyed to see the likes of Redford, will.i.am, the front man of the Black Eyed Peas, and Italian film star Isabella Rossellini, and marvel at how their industry, is suddenly being courted by Hollywood.

We don't yet know what Redford will say at the show but Rossellini is launching a set of short films called Green Porno (she starred in Blue Velvet). Said to be just a few minutes long, these have been made specially for the mobile.

But CME is what it's really all about. At the Fira this year, the whole of Hall 7 is given over to booths and demonstrations of mobile TV, mobile entertainment, mobile gaming and other innovative applications. You can see how the industry is changing day by day: last week CBS revealed it was sending adverts straight to our phones; and on Wednesday the GSM Association (GSMA), the global trade body for mobile operators, will be holding a conference called "Mobile Backstage". The event is being staged in collaboration with top entertainment magazines Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter, and will include music, film, TV, video and gaming industry insiders who will be debating the opportunities for the so-called "Fourth Screen".

This is the notion that mobile devices can be developed to become a mass-viewing technology and so take their place in the panoply of entertainment experiences that begin with cinema, cascade down through TV and computer screens, and end with the ubiquitous mobile phone.

Remember the time in Britain when it took six months to a year just to get a landline phone installed? Well, the same was true for the rest of the world. It was the GSM mobile technology that helped put an end to the second age of the dinosaurs and in doing so changed the world for ever.

Twenty years ago, 15 mobile operators from 13 countries agreed to deploy the technology as a common standard and signed the GSM Memorandum of Understanding. It was a momentous decision: the MoU evolved into the GSMA and nowadays, whether you go to Brazil, China, Russia, Zambia or increasingly even the US (which originally backed other technologies and whose telecoms industry found it hard to accept that a European inititaive had become the de facto mobile standard), your handset will work just as well as it does at home.

The GSMA now represents more than 700 operators across 218 countries and more than 200 manufacturers and suppliers. To emphasise the importance of the standard, GSMA members now serve more than 2.7 billion subscribers, or 85 per cent of all the mobile phones on the planet.

Earlier Mobile World Congresses focused on the technology of mobile communications but today the emphasis is on broadband and applications. Indeed, Arun Sarin, the chief executive of Vodafone, says that the next 25 years will be about services and the user experience of mobile broadband.

As far as the developed world goes, the mobile operators, which have spent billions in every currency to buy 3G licences and deploy the expensive new technology, have yet to make a brass farthing out of their overblown investments. The public has not taken to 3G in the way that was expected and have found the services and applications prone to failure and far from compelling. And, as cut-throat competition ensures that prices for basic mobile services continue to fall, the operators are getting ever more anxious about declining revenues. So they have to find some way to get subscribers to spend more money, which explains the emphasis on mobile TV, content and entertainment.

At the same time, the movie and TV studios, music and gaming industries and other content providers want to get their products in front of more people more often, and having them available on mobile devices not only does that but might also create a lucrative new revenue stream.

So there's a lot to play for and necessity makes for some strange bedfellows. And here the GSMA, in its role as the setter of the industry's strategic agenda, is instrumental in bringing together two very different sectors and cultures. It is also why the main themes of this year's Congress will be innovation and entertainment. Sure there'll be the usual glitzy new handsets with all the bells and whistles and go-faster stripes you can shake a stick at. There'll be new cellular base stations (be still, my beating heart), and there'll be demonstrations of the sort of location-based services that would have been regarded as impossible science fiction, when, only six years ago, they were presaged in the film Minority Report.