Preparations for this year's Mobile World Congress are underway already in Barcelona. But this year is shaping up to be an uncomfortable year. Exactly a year ago today, the 2011 MWC came just as tablets were bursting onto the scene. This year there is no obvious new technology anchoring the event. Though some important product announcements are likely, nothing is going to trump the real story this year: the economy.
When people start arriving in Barcelona late next week, they are in for a shock. The news inside the conference hall is almost certain to be overshadowed by the economic conditions outside. They may even have trouble getting to the conference; crisis-related cuts in public services have transit workers threatening to strike during the conference. Right now, even holding a meeting in Europe — to say nothing of doing actual business there — isn't so pretty.
Rather than dwell on that, I went looking for a sign, any sign of optimism going into this year's MWC. And happily found it. Earlier this week, I spoke with a local mobile app developer here in Barcelona, Enric Sola Rodriguez, who runs Esilex Games, a tiny local mobile startup, with his partner, fellow developer Miriam Broceno. Rodriguez and Broceno, who plan to attend the MWC, are among the small number of technology professionals here in southern Europe who are betting on mobile as a way out of Europe's crisis — and doing reasonably well at it.
Their big bet is a 99-cent app for quitting smoking, called Good Nico. The theory, said Rodriguez, is that smokers trying to quit need a way to distract themselves when temptation strikes. So he and Broceno invented Nico, a digital raccoon. After you download the app, Nico lives in your mobile device or tablet, where you swipe a thumb to make him throw packs of cigarettes in a trash, and earn points in a simple game. It's pretty fun, but the idea isn't really game play. It's to have something to distract you for a moment or two and ride out the inevitable nicotine fit. The idea, said Broceno, is that people will send the app to friends trying to quit, as a show of support.
Clever. But really, so what? Throw a pack of cigarettes in San Francisco or New York and you'll hit a mobile app developer. To understand what this means for Europe — what this means for OEMs — look at the numbers. Right now, Spain's unemployment rate is over 20 percent, the worst in the eurozone. For young people aged 18 to 25, which is the demographic mobile OEMs and app developers covet most, a staggering 50 percent are jobless.
So mobile app developers like Rodriguez and Broceno approach the Mobile World Congress differently than Asian or North American developers might. They aren't creating a mobile startup because they want to take a risk with a fun, promising idea. They're a mobile startup because that's the only way they're going to make it right now in Spain. Creating a mobile app like Good Nico is a curiously revolutionary idea here, in a city where the mobile industry holds its biggest yearly event. Rodriguez and Broceno have already appeared in the local newspaper, on one of Barcelona's biggest radio stations, and been asked to lecture at jobs centers on their project.
So the OEMs are, in this case, not providing usability, or even devices, in the case of Spain. Rather, they're providing a pipeline out of a bad economy and taking it global. Nico the raccoon is selling, after all, not just in Spain, but everywhere, via the Apple Store. Rodriguez said one of the greatest sources of hits on the company's Facebook page is mobile users in South America. In a country not known for entrepreneurialism, that's a huge advantage.
The success of a digital raccoon who helps you quit smoking is not the kind of news you'll see coming out of the MWC. It's not as big as the invention of the tablet was last year, or various smaller, faster chips will be this year. It is certainly not an antidote to the ongoing debates about labor conditions in the mobile industry, or evidence that PCs and tablets can co-exist peacefully in the same market. The MWC still has some drama left in it.
However, the story of Rodriquez, Broceno, and Good Nico is a nice reminder of why the conference happens in the first place. It will be telling what sort of response the local developers find among the international visitors at the MWC. We'll follow up with them after the big show.