As straws in the wind go, Nokia’s decision to pull out of Mobile World Congress is a pretty significant. That the largest player in the handset world will be missing from next year’s show puts a dent in the sales story of the world’s premier mobile telecom event.
When the show was still in Cannes, I remember sitting in a hotel bar listening to former O2 CEO Peter Erskine rail about the bloated hotel bills (and hotelliers love reselling rooms to higher paying guests). He vowed to see it moved to slash costs (there was wild talk of it could even end up at the Birmingham NEC).
In those days attendance was automatic. If you’d told me then that in a few years time the show would not only have moved, but would be dropped by the biggest handset manufacturer, I wouldn’t have believed it.
In the last couple of years, the show has been dominated by players that weren't there. Google and Apple. This spring all the manufacturers were scrambling to show off the touch screen and menu systems they had conjured up to rival the iPhone, which had been the 'elephant in the room' the previous year. Much of the remaining buzz was around Google's Android. Neither player was exhibiting.
The Congress is run by the operator's body the GSMA. What we are now seeing is a schism between them and the interests of other major players driving mobile communications. Nokia's decision not to exhibit as a manufacturer - and to shove the money into direct consumer marketing of services - throws into high relief the differences between operators and software, platform and service providers.
The worst that could happen from the GSMA's point of view is that manifacturers gradually stop using the Congress to launch their new products. The massive German show CeBIT used to be a hub for launches, now it has largely disappeared from the mobile calendar.
Arguably, World Mobile Congress draws enough of the operators elite for manufacturers to continue to use it as product launch pad. But it needs to adapt and adapt fast to hang on to the networks' big guns. In the past it has been an unrivalled gathering for thought leaders. Now it may need to carve a niche as a gathering for followers of thought leaders who no longer need to be there.