How would I sum up the 2012 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona? In a word: complicated. There were more than 67,000 delegates, 1,400 stands, 300 speakers, a gazillion smartphone/tablet/app launches and rather a lot of unpalatable geek-speak. This complication was compounded by that most annoying of species: the retweeter. Clogging up much-needed bandwidth with undecipherable recycled gibberish.
Add to this the crazy rate of change that is the technological arms race. An example: on 9 January, Nokia launched a smartphone with an eight-megapixel camera. HTC countered on 10 January with a 16-megapixel version. And what does Nokia come back with, 52 days later, at the Mobile World Congress? A 41-megapixel camera (do I need 41 megapixels?). These are crazy times when yesterday's news quite literally is yesterday's news. As one friend eloquently put it: "It's all a bit of a headfuck."
But wherever there's chaos, there's opportunity. Michael Roth, the chief executive of Interpublic, noted "confusion is good for business". Brands are desperate for someone to make head or tail of this fast-moving space and this is where our industry can excel.
Why us? We are natural simplifiers. When I was an agency pip-squeak, it was drummed into me that we must be single-minded. Paul Arden (I think) decreed no more than eight words in a headline. Our whole craft is so restricted by space and time, we have to simplify everything. It's in our DNA and no-one does it better.
So ... time for me to practice what I preach. How do I simplify the digital morass that was the 2012 Mobile World Congress? For me, there were four super-hot topics:
As more people adopt smart-phones and tablets and use them for a greater number of things, greater bandwidth is essential. Operators such as O2 and Vodafone are expected to build the next-generation networks while "over-the-top" services such as WhatsApp are eating their lunch by offering calls and texts for free over the internet.
So, do the big users of bandwidth, the Facebooks and Googles, need to chip in? Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, was asked outright if they should share the cost considering their products are 100 per cent reliant on connectivity. Predictably, his answer was a flat no. However, this issue will run and run.
The other hot topic was around operating systems or ecosystems. Specifically, can a third ecosystem emerge to break the duopoly of Apple's iOS and Google's Android? Windows Phone is clearly the strongest contender, but is it just too late? There's no doubt the platform rivals iOS and Android in terms of functionality. But consumers will only flock if it's available on more devices and developers produce more apps.
What is clear, however, is the gatekeepers to the mobile universe have truly emerged. They are not the hardware producers or networks, but the owners of the eco-systems. Brian Dunn, the chief executive of Best Buy, said the first question consumers will soon ask is: "What operating system will I organise my life around?" Their choice of device will become secondary.
Hot on the heels of Barclays' Pingit launch, there was an infuriating amount of rhetoric around various mobile money initiatives. The CEOs of Visa, Citibank and a host of others promised that 2012 will be the year mobile money finally takes off. Trust me, it won't.
Why? Because no universal platform has emerged. For a mobile wallet to be really useful, it needs to be interoperable. A consumer needs to be able to change their handset, bank or network operator without having to start again. Mobile money needs an equivalent of an Android platform - something that makes the whole user experience straightforward and interoperable. So don't ditch your leather wallet just yet.
The Internet of things
There are currently an estimated nine billion things connected to the internet. The GSMA reckons this will total 24 billion by 2020. Everything from your car, TV and fridge, to your thermostat, luggage and glasses. All connected and communicating with one another to make your life as seamless as possible. For this to work across such a diverse range of industries, co-operation is essential. So this is where Apple may finally come a cropper (unless it opens up its operating system).
Interesting, you may think, but what has this got to do with advertising? Little, really. But there was depressingly little innovation on offer when it came to mobile advertising. Yes, Twitter and Facebook are announcing new ad products for their mobile apps, but whoopee-do. To me, mobile advertising still consists of old advertising formats that have been repurposed for smartphones - banner ads, search and SMS, plus the occasional app that amplifies an ad campaign. Where are the entirely new conceptual advertising formats?
We shouldn't worry about this too much, however, as the bigger opportunity for agencies lies beyond mobile advertising. As the great simplifiers, we should be helping our clients separate the geek-speak from the truly useful. In summary, in less than eight words, of course: go forth and simplify.
Michael Sugden is the managing director of VCCP.