Mobile World Congress preview: Netbooks to soar, femtocell gadgets may flop

Netbook sales are starting to inch closer to those of smartphones and laptops, while Google Voice is set to pose a serious challenge to Skype, according to an analyst report to be presented at next week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.

In other findings, femtocell boxes -- already available in the US through Sprint, for example -- will not sell as well as first anticipated, because "the added value a femtocell will bring is too low in the eyes of end users," says the upcoming report from analyst firm IDATE.

Worldwide shipments of "connected devices" -- consisting of netbooks, e-readers, and MIDs -- will skyrocket from 50 million to 166 million units between 2010 and 2013, the analysts predicted during a press pre-briefing on Thursday.

Over the same time span, smartphones will step from 216 million to 321 million units and PC laptops from 179 million to 285 million units. But femtocells -- emerging consumer devices that bring together access to cellular and home DSL or cable broadband networks -- will grow from 970,000 to just 9.31 million units.

"Following the success of smartphones, dedicated to mobile Internet browsing and data exchange, the emergence of a new category of connected devices, in which netbooks have been the most successful to date, has caused upheaval in the mobile telecom market," points out the study. "Whereas MID and electronic book traction has been limited for now, most [mobile] operators worldwide are now proposing netbook offers bundled with a data allowance."

Of the 166 million "connected devices" expected to be shipped in 2013, notebooks will account for 60 million. However, the report previewed on Thursday doesn't speculate about how many of the remaining 106 million devices will be e-readers, Apple iPads, or ARM-based Linux tablets, for example.

Western Europe will lead the way in netbook use, whereas the Asia/Pacific and then North American markets will catch up later in shipments, the study says.

Yet somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, the US will be "the most dynamic market" for femtocells, accounting for 50% of all units shipped in 2013.

Essentially, femtocells are small, low-capacity residential 2G or 3G wireless base stations aimed at letting users communicate across any IP access network from a standard cell phone. Sitting on the user's desktop, the femtocell box connects through DSL or cable broadband to the mobile network, where a provider uses a controller device to pull together -- or "aggregate" -- communications from the multiple services. At CES 2010 in Las Vegas last month, advocates touted femtocells largely as a way to raise the quality of cellular phone calls in houses and other indoor places.

"Regional disparities are due to different expectations associated with femtocell," notes the IDATE report. "North American users see strong value in the indoor coverage capabilities of the solution. But consumers in Asia and Western Europe expect more than just a better quality network; for them, the added value of femtocell is in its convergence features."

Mobile VoIP -- a technology that allows voice calls to be sent over mobile data networks instead of voice networks -- currently provides cost advantages only for international calling, the IDATE analysts contend.

By 2014, IDATE predicts mobile VoIP penetration among end users of 12.5% in the US, 17% in the UK, 14.5% in France, and 8.5% in Germany.

Google Voice brings services such as single number access across multiple devices and automated voice mail transcription. The analysts acknowledge Google Voice could evolve into a major game changer: "Skype is the undisputed champion of the mobile VoIP provider today," according to the report. "However, Google Voice will provide stiff competition; they offer the same mobile VoIP services, but from a completely different angle in the form of unified communications. At present, subscriptions are available in the US and by invitation. Once the service becomes available worldwide it has the potential to make a real impact."

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