If confirmation was needed that we live in the age of the mobile phone, then the presence of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at the Mobile World Congress gathering next week should underline the ascendancy of the handset. Zuckerberg will deliver the keynote address on Monday, fresh from announcing a $19bn (£11.4bn) deal to buy WhatsApp, the hottest mobile texting app in town.
The presence of this social media superstar at one of the less glamorous trade shows is proof that mobile is now the priority for technology giants such as Facebook and Google. Facebook has shifted its focus from laptops and PCs as it strives to catch up with consumers’ changing technological tastes. As a result its mobile site, also accessible via tablets, is now used by 945 million of its 1.23 billion monthly active users.
Facebook will attend the MWC event with every big name in technology, including every global mobile operator and handset maker. In all, 75,000 delegates descend on Barcelona to showcase the next wave of smartphones and gadgets.
Facebook has obviously seen mobile as the key to its future for a while. Its purchase of WhatsApp last week, which added another 450 million monthly active users, is the biggest in a long line of acquisitions that includes Instagram, the mobile-based photosharing site.
Facebook has its own home-grown mobile applications too. The standard Facebook app has become one of the primary ways of accessing the social network for millions, while its Facebook Messenger application has joined WhatsApp in the ranks of text message replacement services.
The strategic shift to mobile has been driven partly by Facebook users’ embrace of mobile technology, but also by the subsequent impact on Facebook’s primary revenue source, advertising. As more people migrate to using Facebook on tablets or phones, the number of eyeballs using the desktop version of Facebook shrinks. Facebook, and its advertisers, have to go where the users are.
Beyond existing users in developed countries such as the UK and the US, Facebook also sees mobile as a way of engaging with people in the developing world. Already, around 81% of Facebook’s 757 million daily active users are based outside the US and Canada. In the markets where Facebook is not already reaching saturation point, it is the mobile phone that is often the primary computing device – especially in developing nations, where mobile phone coverage far outstrips traditional landline and broadband infrastructure.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates that there are at least 6.8 billion mobile subscribers globally, while data from Portio Research suggests that that figure will rise to 8.5 billion by the end of 2016. Of those mobile subscribers, 5.2 billion are based in the developing world, with mobile data available to 1.2 billion of those users, according to data from ITU. By contrast only 357m fixed broadband connections exist in the developing world.
The path to increasing Facebook’s user base in these developing nations is therefore through mobile, something that is obviously on Zuckerberg’s mind as he prepares to take the stage in Barcelona. But MWC is not just about Facebook, of course. Several major mobile manufacturers are expected to unveil their new smartphones, tablets and a plethora of accessories. New Smart watches will appear, but glitzy phone launches will still dominate. Samsung’s highly anticipated Galaxy S5 is a follow-up to last year’s top-of-the-range Galaxy S4, which has dominated sales of smartphones that use Google’s Android operating system in the UK.
The S5 is expected to feature a bigger screen and more processing power, but the biggest improvement is anticipated to be in the software department, where Samsung stands accused of falling behind competitors.
Sony, too, is expected to launch at least one new high-end device in Barcelona, with the follow up to the waterproof Xperia Z1 expected to be unveiled. A replacement for the thinnest and lightest full-sized Android tablet, the Xperia Tablet Z, is also expected, which could see an Android device worthy of rivalling Apple’s iPad Air.
A new device from Nokia is also expected: the Nokia X. It is anticipated to be an Android smartphone, but one that is very different from Google’s Android, looking more like Microsoft’s Windows Phone and running Microsoft and Nokia’s applications instead of Google’s Maps, Gmail and search. One of Zuckerberg’s reasons for buying WhatsApp at such vaulting expense was to prevent it from falling into the hands of Google. But thanks to the popularity of Android, the search giant’s presence will be felt strongly in Barcelona.