Early Look: MWC

As Mobile World Congress opens this year, it’s already clear that we’re going to see a battle of relevance as much as one of technology.  Network equipment vendors divide roughly into two groups; those who have wireless 4G assets and those who don’t.  The former group has a direct link to wireless projects and investment, which means that they can pull through backhaul and metro gear in larger projects.  The latter group is hoping to make their network-layer products relevant in a world driven increasingly by mobile and radio technology.  Cisco and Juniper have already announced products that are aimed at creating a mobile-accommodating backhaul and metro infrastructure, and at improving the management of the experience.

Arguing over which of these vendors has the best “box x” or “box y” is an exercise in futility.  The one area where they may differ in a tangible way is what we call the “service layer”, the software and “networkware” tools that reside above the normal transit/connection assets.  While Cisco is clearly widening its pool of assets at the service layer, they’re not yet integrating them into a single structure.  Juniper’s Junos ecosystem does that, which makes it a bit easier to position the assets as symbiotic.  Symbiosis among service elements is critical in assuring an end-to-end experience.  It’s hard for me to believe that Cisco doesn’t plan something more ecosystemic at the service layer, but on the other hand they’ve had plenty of inspiration from competitors (including Juniper but also Alcatel-Lucent) and they’ve not made the move yet.

The big question for both Cisco and Juniper is whether Alcatel-Lucent has finally got something going for itself.  The lightRadio announcement is a strong one, and while both Cisco and Juniper have either developed or acquired products that can be used in hotspot deployment, they’re not able to address the RAN itself.  Ericsson and NSN can, but they don’t have a strong switching/routing portfolio.  Alcatel-Lucent also has an increasingly cohesive service-layer strategy, and were they to get that story to gel convincingly they’d make it a lot harder for any of their competitors to tell their own service-layer story, no matter how far along that story might be.  He who sings first, wins.

It’s also clear from MWC that tablets are the pivotal product in the mobile space.  All the financial analysts have estimated iPad growth will beat that of the iPhone, and you can tell that everyone is frightened of an Apple market sweep by the fact that tablets are being rushed out for display with neither pricing nor availability noted.  A part of this is the fact that the tablet players are still looking at carrier deals and don’t want to spoil any negotiations, but another is the fact that Apple competitors are just not ready.  Android Honeycomb is the first tablet-sensitive version, WebOS is just emerging from its new HP parent, and nobody is even sure what form factor makes sense or how important the enterprise is versus the consumer.

Smartphones and tablets might become the next battleground between traditional players and the emerging China competitors.  ZTE is going to ramp smartphone production and is promising models under a hundred bucks.  I’ve also heard that both ZTE and Huawei are looking hard at the tablet space, both focusing on an Android model.  The story is that there won’t be a big push by either until late this year, but you never know.  The entry of either of these players could throw a big monkey-wrench into the market because both might be inclined to offer a very cheap WiFi-only model that would decouple tablets from carriers on a larger scale.  That could confound the strategies of the current giants, though some (like Apple) already have a pure WiFi capability.  The reason for vendors liking the carrier strategy is the subsidy, which gets the price down and increases acceptance.  If somebody does that without the subsidy, all bets are off.

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