It's safe to say that 2011 will go down as a banner year for the Mobile World Congress - partly because it was the biggest MWC ever with 60,000 attendees, and partly because of Nokia and Microsoft stealing the show.
Indeed, Nokia's decision to adopt Windows Mobile 7 the Friday before the event was a common topic on the floor, and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer - already scheduled to open Mobile World Live with a progress report on WP7 - was joined onstage by Nokia chief (and former Microsoft employee) Stephen Elop to explain the partnership and their concept of a "third ecosystem" (after Apple and Google) that will purportedly drive competition and new services innovation. (The less said about the botched WP7 demo, the better.)
Also notable was Google chief Eric Schmidt's second appearance at MWC (and his last as Google CEO). This year his talk was more visionary than revelatory, but he did admit in the Q&A that he wished Nokia had chosen Android, and that "the offer remains open". Apart from a pointed question about Android fragmentation issues, Schmidt got a noticeably warmer reception than last year, when he received a grilling from telcos about Google's dominance and unwelcome competition against their own content services.
This year, operator CEOs saved criticism of Google for their own keynotes, with Telecom Italia CEO Franco Bernabe complaining that content providers such as Google were "invading our turf", and Vodafone's Vittorio Colao said the industry needs to rethink its approach to content delivery, to help avoid "dominance of any step of the value chain" (by which he meant Google, mainly).
CEOs also had a go at regulators, calling on them to implement light-touch policies that encourage openness and competition in the mobile sector as it evolves toward an ecosystem driven by 4G speeds and cloud-based services. Or, as AT&T chairman, CEO and president Randall Stephenson put it, "They should stay out of the way."
As such, the big news out of MWC was arguably the commercial launch of the Wholesale Application Community (WAC), which promises to blow the apps ecosystem wide open in terms of giving cellcos access to a potentially larger ecosystem of apps developers to work with via apps that bypass OS lock-in. Huawei, Ericsson and IBM were on hand to offer WAC-compliant app store solutions to get them started.
In terms of devices, there were plenty of new sexy smartphone launches (particularly LG's Optimus 3D phone), but the big story was tablets. Samsung, LG, Motorola, ZTE and RIM launched new tablet devices on Day 1, most of them running on Android.
Meanwhile, NFC technology - which has been struggling for years to fulfill its promise as an integrated mobile payments technology - finally looked to be on the verge, with ZTE announcing an NFC deal with NXP, and RIM co-CEO Jim Balsilie promising that most new BlackBerry devices from here on out will be NFC-enabled.
Naturally, 4G was the other hot topic of the show, and while several network vendors were keen to show off prototypes for LTE-Advanced, the bigger focus was on last year's LTE launches, as well as TD-LTE, thanks to efforts by China Mobile and ZTE to talk up the technology's potential. Other hot topics of note included mobile advertising, m-health and - of course - apps, apps, apps.
All up, this year's MWC was the most upbeat conference since the iPhone burst the mobile sector's bubble in 2007, and reflected an industry that finally has a reasonably solid idea of where it's going amidst the mobile data apps explosion, even if it's still not 100% sure how to get there.