Mobile World Congress: Don’t Call It a Phone Show

Mobile World Congress, which kicks off Monday in Barcelona, is the place to be for everyone who’s anyone in the mobile phone ecosystem, and increasingly that includes everyone whose anyone in the technology industry. Over the last few years the event and the industry have shifted from being about mobile phones to being about always-on connectivity. Mobile broadband has changed the value of the mobile ecosystem and thus the players who care about it.

For example, keynote speakers this year include a U.S. cable company talking about its wireless deployment; Shantanu Narayen, president and CEO of Adobe (s adbe), presumably defending Flash; and Google’s (s goog) Eric Schmidt taking about the search engine’s plans to rule the mobile world and the usual array of operator and handset executives.

So what can we expect from the show? Here’s a list of the big topics and what they means for the end user who just wants to surf the web anywhere he or she is:

  • Better, faster, cheaper chips for mobile devices. Qualcomm (s qcom), Marvell (s mrvl), Texas Instruments (s txn) and a range of other silicon vendors will announce everything from applications processors that can deliver enough power for true HD video to silicon that integrates multiple radios on a chip. For the average Joe this means devices coming out in the next two years will pack more of a visual punch and surf the web at lighting speeds on whatever network is available. I think we’re also going to see more ways to extend our mobile devices, such as pico projectors and chips to enable wireless transfer of content off the phone, but that’s going to still be an early adopter technology in 2010.
  • New software and gear from deep-packet inspection companies. Wi-Fi offload was all the buzz last year as mobile data use from iPhones and other smartphones threatened to swamp operators’ networks. Wi-Fi offload is still hot, but it’s not going to be the star — policy management is. For normal people this means that pricing for your mobile bits is going to change. Carriers will have the tools from Bridgewater Systems, Sandvine, Camiant and others to parse your mobile habits into the type of application you’re using (VoIP, downloading video, streaming, etc.) and the time of day, and start billing you differently based on those factors.
  • Phones lose their luster as they gain functionality. This is a phone show, even if Nokia (s nok), the largest phone maker isn’t bringing a new one to the party, but while plenty of them will launch, the excitement will be around smartbooks, tablets and a host of other devices that incorporate mobile broadband, but maybe not voice. However, the phones that are launching will likely be faster and cooler than the current hunk of metal and plastic in your pocket, with better screens, app stores and features that make it easier than ever to start surfing the web. Plus, those features will start moving down market into cheaper phones thanks to new chips and software.
  • New network operators change the market. Your wireless provider no longer has to be a phone company. Cable providers are getting into the game with mobile broadband offerings that in some cases beat out the wireless ones. For example, Bend Broadband in Oregon has the nation’s faster wireless network, even if it’s not used for vocie. And later this spring Cox, a U.S. cable provider, will launch its own wireless network aimed at offering subscribers mobile broadband rather than mobile voice. The impact of these players could be profound. Faster speeds (and maybe that policy software that can help guarantee levels of service) could make VoIP a real alternative to actual voice handsets. Or consumers might pick up a cheap prepaid mobile phone for voice and carry around an iPod touch-like device on the cable network for web inquiries.

In other words, it’s gonna be big.

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