Smartphones and tablets to steal the show in Barcelona

For the next four days, Barcelona will be dominated not by Antoni Gaudi, Catalan politics or even Lionel Messi – but by mobile phones.

Today is the start of the annual Mobile World Congress in Spain's second largest city, with 50,000 visitors expected to descend on the enormous La Fira complex over the next four days.

There will be new devices, new technology and new partnerships unveiled this week, as well as predictions for the prospects of the industry at the "must-attend" event of the mobile calendar.

Smartphones and tablets are expected to take centre stage at MWC, as will "smart networks" able to the cope with the explosion in mobile data traffic.

The biggest shake-up of the smartphone market was actually announced in London on Friday. And while Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer will give his traditional keynote in Barcelona later today, the industry's focus will be on last week's tie-up between Microsoft and Nokia.

The embattled Finnish handset giant has seen its share of the smartphone market – in which it specialises at the low end – fall from 36.7 per cent to 28 per cent in a year, according to Gartner. Both Nokia and Microsoft are desperate to compete with Apple's iPhone and the array of devices running the Google-developed Android system.

There will not be a Nokia Windows Phone device on show at MWC. But Nokia chief executive Stephen Elop told the conference last night there will be one by the end of the year. And there will be plenty of others to whet the industry's appetite in Barcelona, including a first look at LG's glasses-free 3D smartphone, the Optimus, an Android-powered device.

The Sony "PlayStation" phone was one of the first new launches at MWC last night. The much-anticipated Xperia Play handset has all the hallmarks of current smartphones, as well as a gamepad reminiscent of Sony's handheld console.

There will also be an array of new tablets to compete with the iPad, although much of the thunder has already been stolen by announcements at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month.

The latest industry trends survey compiled for GSMA, the trade association behind MWC, by consultancy Deloitte, will be launched at the opening of the event this morning.

The report will show that smartphones are increasingly being used for social networking, with 40 per cent of users checking their status daily, rising to a whopping 63 per cent in the 18-to-24 age bracket. Social networking is also the fastest-growing consumer app category out of the 19 tracked by research group Gartner. And this year's MWC will see a clutch of phones specifically designed with social networking in mind, particularly Facebook.

INQ has already revealed its Facebook phone, the Cloud Touch, and at least one major handset maker is expected to unveil a rival in Barcelona. To mark the importance of the rise of mobiles in social networking, Dick Costolo, the chief executive of Twitter, will be giving a keynote later today.

As phones become more sophisticated there will be more talk of "wave and pay" technology, exemplified by the deal Orange recently signed with Barclaycard for customers to pay by swiping their phones.

The rise of this Near Field Communication (NFC) technology will be another significant theme at MWC. Although it is yet to become mainstream in the UK – and will not be so until 2015, according to Gartner – NFC will be built into a growing number of high-end phones this year. The hotly-tipped Sam Galaxy S2 wave-and-pay phone from Samsung was given its first showing in Barcelona last night.

Alongside the figures on smartphone usage, Deloitte's survey also shows a small but growing trend for consumers to have multiple mobile phones. The majority of respondents in the US, South Korea and the UK have more than one mobile phone, the consultancy says, while one in 10 have three. Outside of the UK, 5 per cent of respondents have four or more devices.

"The global mobile network remains the world's most powerful and most pervasive social network with over 5 billion connections and counting," Jolyon Barker, the managing director of global technology, media and telecoms at Deloitte, said.

Top speakers at MWC 2011

* Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer

* Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo

* Outgoing Google founder Eric Schmidt

* Carole Bartz, the boss of struggling Google competitor Yahoo! – set to present the company's mobile strategy

* Vittorio Colao, the chief executive of Vodafone

* Wang Jianzhou, the chairman of China Mobile

* BlackBerry co-founder Jim Balsillie

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