New smartphone OSes, network technologies vie for attention in Barcelona

New smartphone OSes, network technologies vie for attention in Barcelona

ZTE will launch the first phone based on Firefox OS for consumers and LTE-Advanced will make several appearances

ZTE smartphones based on Firefox OS along with Nokia's new Windows Phone-based devices will share the spotlight at this year's Mobile World Congress with next-generation network technologies that offer higher download speeds and help operators combat growing volumes of data.

With high-end smartphones already announced by vendors such as HTC and LG Electronics and Samsung Electronics expected to launch the Galaxy S IV in March, this year's show will focus more on midtier and low-end devices, which are also important for vendors to get right as they will make up most of the billion smartphones that are expected to be sold this year.

While Android will dominate, the show will also be the coming-out party for Firefox OS, one of the new OSes that will be available on smartphones this year. ZTE will lead the charge when it announces the first phone intended for consumers on Monday. Little is known about the device, but the Keon and Peak -- which were introduced last month and are intended for developers -- hints at what can be expected.

The Keon is powered by a 1GHz processor, has a 3.5-inch touchscreen and a 3-megapixel camera. The Peak is more powerful with its dual-core 1.2GHz processor. It also has a 4.3-inch screen, an 8-megapixel camera on the back and a 2-megapixel camera on the front.

The first units will start shipping during Mobile World Congress and were developed cooperatively between Mozilla, Spanish operator Telefónica and Madrid-based Geeksphone.

Canonical with its Ubuntu for phones and tablets, the Finnish company Jolla and its Sailfish OS, and the Tizen camp will also have a presence at the show. The Canonical team will be available to install Ubuntu on devices such as the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets, as well as on Nexus 4 and Galaxy Nexus smartphones.

Success will not come easy for the new OSes. But Firefox OS has a shot thanks to backing from companies such as Telefónica and ZTE, but it will have to overcome challenges such as low brand awareness among consumers and a relatively modest ecosystem of apps and services, according to market research company Strategy Analytics. It expects Firefox OS will capture a 1 percent share of global smartphone shipments in 2013.

One vendor that hasn't announced any high-end devices this year is Nokia. The company is expected to expand its portfolio at the show with the Lumia 520 and 720, which is in line with the focus on midtier and low-end devices.

But there have also been persistent rumors about Nokia releasing a successor to the Lumia 920, which was just announced in September. Launching a new flagship model so soon after the predecessor broke cover isn't something phone vendors usually do, but if HTC can do it so can Nokia. HTC, which just like Nokia has struggled to compete with Apple and Samsung, on Tuesday presented the One, which arrives just over three months after the Droid DNA. So Nokia may very well announce a new smartphone that is lighter and thinner than the Lumia 920, perhaps also with a camera similar to the 41-megapixel sensor on Nokia's Symbian-based 808 PureView.

The company shipped 4.4 million Windows Phone-based Lumia devices during the fourth quarter, which was a step in the right direction. But in "2013 Nokia has only two options: either significantly grow sales or change its strategy, radically," IDC analyst Francisco Jeronimo said via email last month when Nokia announced its results.

Other devices that are anticipated to be announced in Barcelona include a tablet from Samsung with a 8-inch screen and a successor to Huawei's Ascend P1.

LTE will be a common theme for both devices and networks. For the technology to take off on a larger scale, there need to be more devices available at different price points, not just expensive high-end ones. On Thursday, LG Electronics launched the Optimus F series, which aims to bring LTE to the masses, according to the company. On the network side, there will be demonstrations of LTE-Advanced, including technologies such as carrier aggregation, which increases download speeds by combining two or more blocks of spectrum in the same or different frequency bands into one channel.

Voice over LTE (VoLTE) will also be an important topic with a number of operators launching services this year. Telefónica recently demonstrated the ability to move a phone call from LTE to a 3G network without disruption, and at Mobile World Congress Ericsson will demonstrate the world's first LTE-FDD (Frequency-Division Duplex) to LTE-TDD (Time-Division Duplex) voice call with China Mobile, ST-Ericsson and device partner Renesas Mobile. The goal is to show VoLTE has matured, according to the Swedish company.

However, the most important task Ericsson and competing companies such as Alcatel-Lucent, Nokia Siemens Networks and Huawei have is to help operators handle growing data volumes in their networks.

To do that, they intend to offer a multitude of different mechanisms starting with the use of so-called heterogenous networks, which use different-sized base stations and several networks, including Wi-Fi and LTE. On Tuesday, Nokia Siemens said it will extend its small-cell portfolio at the show to include new smaller base stations for LTE and Wi-Fi, designed to complement standard base stations in areas where there are a lot of users.

Mobile World Congress takes place from Monday through Thursday.

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