By Columnist
updated 2/10/2006 2:33:02 PM ET 2006-02-10T19:33:02

Remember when taking a picture with your phone was the neatest thing you’d ever heard of? So does the wireless industry. Though they’ve been throwing all kinds of high-speed functions and gizmos into their new phones, none has really grabbed the public enthusiasm the way camera phones did a few years ago.

So when more than 50,000 industry movers and shakers gather at the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona next week, expect to hear a lot about what people hope will be the “next big thing” for cell phones and wireless communications.

Why Spain? Well, as you may have noticed, Europe has been a lot quicker to adopt new wireless technology than the United States and some of the biggest companies in the industry are based there. So, for the same reason that European tech companies came to Las Vegas last month for the Consumer Electronics Show, U.S. and other global companies with an interest in wireless are headed to Catalonia.

We’re talking some pretty big companies, too. Among the notable people giving keynote addresses next week are the CEOs of Nokia, Vodafone, Motorola and Microsoft. And if you think Redmond, Wash., is a long way from Barcelona, the president of China Mobile, the world’s biggest mobile phone company, will also be making the trip. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

The name of the conference, 3GSM, refers to the third-generation of cell phone technology — the kind that companies have been building for a while but are only now starting to be used widely. (GSM, which stands for the Global System for Mobile Communications, is the mobile phone technology used by most of the world’s cellular phone networks, particularly in Europe. But the conference is about all kinds of wireless technology.)

The search for the “next big thing” is important for the whole industry, not just the people who make the actual phone in your hand. Wireless companies have spent a lot of money building out high-speed networks that can handle many types of communications, including voice, text and video. (Here’s something to ponder: according to industry estimates, more than a trillion text messages were sent on a global basis in 2005. That’s more than a hundred text messages for every person on the planet.)

So, it’s no surprise that 3GSM has grown tremendously, even from last year’s show in Cannes, France. Almost 1,000 companies have signed up to showcase their latest mobile products, services and solutions in Barcelona next week.

Get ready for mobile TV
So what’s “the next big thing?” Think mobile TV. People like TV, and companies like it because they think it will get users to buy more high-end phones with bigger screens. Cellular TV is still very much in its infancy, but I expect to see a lot of new handset/phone designs at 3GSM next week. (If you think you'd never want to watch TV on that small a screen, I say, wait until you see the screens they're developing.)

There undoubtedly also will be a number of new services discussed; it’s not clear yet what the winning model for delivering TV to a phone is — or who’s providing the content. Another unexpected corporate name represented among those keynote speakers? MTV. Yes, that MTV.

One way of delivering TV to a phone is what’s called direct broadcast, where you turn on the phone and watch whatever is on a particular channel. You know, just like you used to do on your TV before TiVo and pay-per-view and so on. I expect to see (and marvel at) the latest version of Nokia’s Cell Phone TV technology.

I will also be searching for rebroadcast solutions such as the fabulous Slingbox (which sends a video stream from your home cable/satellite/VCR/DVD hookup to your phone via an Internet connection). Either way, get ready to watch TV on your cell phone.

BlackBerry blues
In addition to all the new cell phones and accessories that will be introduced — and I promise to tell you about them next week — the fate of Research in Motion’s BlackBerry is expected to be a big topic of discussion at the show.

A U.S. federal judge is weighing whether to issue an injunction that could shut down BlackBerry service in the United States and a hearing in the matter is, by chance, set for the week after 3GSM. RIM’s court problems will probably dominate a good portion of the discussions on the show floor — and everywhere else in Barcelona. Of particular bewilderment to people outside the United States (and many in it) is the idea that the U.S. courts could grant an injunction against BlackBerry while another branch of the government (the patent office) is currently reviewing and rejecting all the underlying patents. 

There’ll also be a lot of interest in possible alternatives, such as Windows Mobile 5.0 smartphones and services. While it once lagged behind, Microsoft’s mobile software has evolved into a slick solution. If RIM is forced to introduce its injunction “workaround” in the United States, this might turn into an interesting horse race.

This year’s 3GSM World Congress runs from Feb. 13-16. My reports will begin on Monday.

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