MWC 2012

I had the opportunity of visiting the Mobile World Congress this morning. This was my first time there, so I didn't know what to expect!

On approaching the Fira area the first thing that has impacted me is the huge amount of police ("mossos d'esquadra") planted in front of and surrounding the entrance to the exhibition centre. What were they expecting, war or what? It was a bit scary. After a bit of confusion with the entrances I managed to locate the proper entry point for the "Fast track" badge ticket I got, and whizzed by it. I was expecting a long queue as the organisers anticipated but I checked in in probably less than five minutes. Very well organised!

Right after I went out of the check-in area, a woman handed me a box with pills. I guess those are freshening mints, but I didn't dare trying them. For some reason they looked suspicious and I've always been taught not to eat whatever strangers give you in the streets ;-) Then I located a couple of my coworkers who were idling in a corner nearby, where we had agreed to meet.

It was pretty surreal to see the exhibition area transformed in the way it is when there's such an event happening. I had been at this area a couple of years ago, as it actually is a public avenue leading to the Museu Nacional de Catalunya (or Catalunya's National Museum), and it's also famous because of its fountains, so people can walk up and down the street "in normal conditions". Today there were lots of tents and lorries installed in the street, and lots of people in suits. Like LOTS! Quite a contrast with the usual tourist-comfy clothes one would expect here!

Because a coworker wanted to say "hi" to someone he knew in Hall 7, we visited that one first. Coincidentally, it was home to several interesting companies such as... Canonical! They were presenting their Ubuntu on Android, Ubuntu TV and I don't know what else. Thus I had the opportunity to check Ubuntu on Android by myself and ask the guy in the stand several questions about it. Such as: how does it actually work? and... is it much of a hack? He told me that yes, currently it's a bit of a hack, but they expect to reach an agreement with device manufacturers so that phones ship with Ubuntu on Android. They are using the same kernel as Android, so it's not like they are "another app" on top of Android, but it's more like they are running side by side with the rest of Android stuff. In the future they expect to be able to offer a downloadable image so that "people with enough know-how" can install Ubuntu on their Android phones. I also asked him which sort of setup does it require; actually it's running on a Gingerbread dual core phone. Regarding connections, it uses an HDMI port for output, and a USB port in the phone for connecting peripherals... although the demonstration machine was using a dock to which things as the keyboard and mouse were connected. Everything is stored either in the device's SD card or "in the cloud", using Ubuntu's cloud servers.

He told me they are aiming to people who do not have a computer yet but are about to get one--these phones could very well be their phone and computer at the same time. They are also aiming at corporate environments too--give your employees a work phone which is a computer too. He showed me a remote desktop application which was running Excel on somewhere else's server, as the type of stuff that could be done if processing requirements were huger than what the phone with Libre Office could afford. The performance was quite decent, but nothing spectacular. Again it depends on what your needs are; I personally consider that having a full blown desktop in quite a high resolution and with the Unity desktop running in a "simple" phone is quite of an achievement, so well done Ubuntu!

We also were approached by someone from Nokia who wanted to show us the new and shiny Nokia I-don't-remember-its-number phone, i.e. the one who could take pictures at 41 Mega pixels. She initially started showing me how I could take a picture and --wow--share it to Twitter! Or Facebook! Or even send it by email! After a while this got a bit silly so I just told her that I was more interested in knowing if this phone could replace carrying a proper full-blown camera and a phone, so could she just show me a picture in "normal" mode, without all "auto" settings on? She did and frankly, I'm not sure if it's a matter of the preview quality in the phone or what, but I was seeing blurry images with a lot of interpolation on them in order to artificially increase the "megapixels". I think my "old" Nikon D40 takes better pictures. Even my pocket Canon does, so I was not impressed by this. The interface wasn't specially intuitive either, requiring lots of touches on the screen in order to take a picture or focus, so it's not the sort of phone/camera that you can use when wearing gloves. She insisted that for best results I had to use the "PureView" mode, so maybe that's the reason that this test wasn't as nice as I expected it to be. It has been a bit of a disappointment, all in all.

Mozilla was in that Hall as well, but it seems they were just serving coffee (?!?!); unfortunately I didn't have much time to investigate what they were up to.

From there we went to Hall 8. I got the opportunity to test the Samsung Notes devices, both the phone and the tablet versions. The phone is still running Android 2.3, even though it sports quite a huge screen -probably at the same size that the latest Nexus-. But that wasn't the worst part. The worst was that the flagship application, and the reason why the hall was filled with people dressed as French painters of sorts, with the usual French hat and all, making caricatures of attendants, or in other words, S-Notes, was laggy like there was no tomorrow. It was the worst that can happen with a tablet --where tablet means a Wacom-style tablet, not a tablet-style device--: you move the pointer on the screen and some time after, something gets drawn. It was a huge letdown. I mean, didn't anyone notice before releasing it?! It was unbelievably laggy. I can't feel comfortable drawing with that, and I'm not a pro! Fortunately, the tablet device was a bit more decent, with less delay between my actions and the response in the screen. It is such a pity, as they even implemented pressure sensitivity, which is something other devices do not have -or don't sport prominently! The phone looked very nice, but there's no way I can use that for taking notes, much less drawing. I tried writing a word: I was boring myself to death waiting for it to complete the first letters in order to continue with the rest of the word. Nope, it's not ready yet.

We reached the Android area, where there were a lot of stands, Google I/O style, with people showing their apps. There was also an strange installation for "Android design", with sort of screens or miscellaneous things in place of the screens, such as electrical switches, rubber surfaces and other indescribable objects arranged in a rectangular grid, trying to invite people to interact with them and make things happen, but I was slightly disgusted at the sight of a creepy feathery thing with bumps that moved in a seemingly random but organic way. I didn't want to look at that, and even less touch it! So I guess that could be one of the reasons why people weren't interacting so much with it: it was slightly eeeeeew.

There was also a robot assembling covers with Android motifs and jewels (a proper robot), and a sort of amusement park attraction where people could try to grab an Android felt by controlling the crane with the accelerometers of a tablet. It was the first time I ever try my hand at this sort of things so I evidently haven't won any Android toy! Also--you only had 45 seconds, as the countdown was clearly displayed in a red LCD on the right side. Very retro. Oh, and I have also spotted the Google Data Arts Team's WebGL Bookcase in a screen tucked in a corner of the upper gallery. Yay! Three.js was at the MWC this way ;-)

After this --and a free smoothie, courtesy of Android-- we've gone to the Hall 7 again, for the BlackBerry developers event. I didn't know what to expect as I have never used a BlackBerry device and I had only read that they were programmed with Adobe AIR, which I am not particularly interested in nowadays, but I have got pleasantly surprised by their presentation. I liked their pragmatic approach to getting developers to produce apps for BlackBerry: "there's native, there's AIR, there's HTML5 -with access to native capabilities, and hardware accelerated WebGL support--, there's Android compatibility, and if there's something else that you find missing, let us know because we want to hear about it". They understand that people have invested time and effort in their code bases and don't want to (or can't) just throw it all away and rewrite using the platform's owner language of choice (e.g. Objective C in iOS or Java in Android). I also liked the numbers they provided regarding device updates. It seems updates on the BlackBerry platform are frequent and do happen, so as a developer you can expect that most users will have an updated version of the operating system. Oh and something else that I loved was the focus on responsive UI right from the start: everything is hardware accelerated and the application's default design paradigm avoids blocking the UI thread with things that shouldn't run on it.

It was a pretty solid session and I'm now curious about this BlackBerry stuff. I am happy that they gave us a free PlayBook device at the end of the event, so I will be able to investigate and report about my findings any time soon. Will it stand up to its promises? The answer, on future posts!

Sorry if you expected a more in-detail post--I didn't had time for staying longer at the Congress!