Mobile World Congress: Will the Windows ecosystem be relevant in Barcelona?

It’s still an iPhone and Android world, but at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next Monday, expect Microsoft’s Windows and Windows Phone platforms to show some intriguing signs of life.

There won’t be a lot of huge phone and tablet announcements at the show, and Microsoft’s own presence will be dialed back compared to previous years. Nonetheless, we might see some interesting new developments—especially if key rumors pan out.

Here’s a breakdown of all the speculation and concrete details concerning Windows 8/RT and Windows Phone hardware heading into next week’s event.

What little we know for sure

Expect AMD to show off its new Turbo Dock technology.

Of course, most hardware manufacturers won’t talk about their plans for MWC ahead of time. Trust us—we asked. Huawei, HTC, and Asus declined to comment, while Nokia replied with a schedule of its speaking arrangements. Samsung didn’t even respond to our queries.

The big official news ahead of the show is that AMD will demonstrate a new Turbo Dock technology for future Windows 8 hybrids. Unlike existing keyboard and trackpad docks—which merely add battery life to whatever devices they're connected to—Turbo Dock can crank up CPU and GPU performance by up to 40 percent, and it also provides an option for extra storage. It’s unclear, however, if PC makers will announce any actual products with this technology at MWC.

We also know that LG will show off a Windows 8 hybrid called the Tab-Book, which includes a keyboard that slides out from behind its multitouch screen. Still, LG has held off on most of the details, saying only that the hardware boasts an Intel Core i5 processor and an IPS display. The Tab Book launches this week in Korea, but there’s no word on additional availability.

LG should be revealing its new Tab-Book, another entry in the Windows 8 hybrid dogfight.

Rumors and speculation abound

The rumor mill is where things get interesting. In the run-up to MWC, we’ve seen reports of a Nokia Windows Phone with true PureView camera technology and a Nokia tablet running Windows RT. There’s also been talk of a 7.7 mm-thin Windows Phone from Huawei called the Ascend W2. It's rumored to pack a 4.5-inch display and a sizeable 2,800 mAh battery, and we could see a 6.1-inch Huawei Windows Phone phablet as well.

Just don’t expect all those rumors to pan out. Strategy Analytics performed “extensive channel checks” this week, and believes that Nokia will hold off on announcing a Windows RT tablet. Neil Mawston, Strategy Analytics' executive director of global wireless practice, thinks the company is better off solidifying its position in smartphones first.

“It’s a question of timing, I think,” Mawston said in an interview. “Nokia doesn’t want to move into tablets too soon, especially if you look back at the Nokia netbook that it launched three years ago. That sank without a trace and sold very small volumes, so any move into the computing market for Nokia will not be taken lightly.”

The Lumia 920 hasn't set the world on fire, so maybe Nokia should keep its focus on smartphones before getting distracted by tablets.

With that in mind, a new PureView Windows Phone smartphone seems like a possibility. Rumors have claimed that the phone would have a huge megapixel count, allowing users to zoom and crop photos without sacrificing image quality—much like the PureView Symbian handset that debuted at last year’s MWC. Analysts say the new tech could make a big splash at the show.

“If that does come to pass, that could be exciting, especially because there doesn’t seem to be all that much news coming out of the show, at least in terms of what I know in advance,” said Avi Greengart, a research director with Current Analysis.

Greengart notes that smartphone makers such as HTC, Samsung, and Blackberry have followed Apple’s footsteps in holding their own press events for new smartphones, eschewing announcements at trade shows. This leaves room for a company like Nokia to fill the void.

Aside from a small number of potentially juicy announcements, the analysts I spoke with expect a focus on low-cost handsets, especially for emerging markets. This makes sense, considering that there’s no new version of Windows Phone to leverage, and therefore no built-in support for 1080p screens, which are popping up in most high-end Android handsets now.

Microsoft’s presence fades

Microsoft used to make its presence felt at MWC. Two years ago, CEO Steve Ballmer gave a keynote speech that included details on Windows Phone 7.5. Last year, the company held a press event to announce the Windows 8 Consumer Preview.

This time around, Microsoft is scaling back. The company won’t have an official booth like the one pictured below. It's also forgoing a keynote, and merely plans to meet with industry partners and update the press on recent announcements.

In 2012, Microsoft had a full-on booth presence at Mobile World Congress to show off the then still strange and unknown Windows 8.

Some second-guessing of this strategy is inevitable. “Microsoft could have easily used this as an opportunity, not to announce, but more to set out what their vision is for Windows, and to keep hammering that same message again and again,” said Chetan Sharma, a technology and strategy consultant. He thinks a keynote would have been helpful to drive home its multiscreen vision of computing. “To that extent, I think they’ve missed an opportunity," he said.

Avi Greengart with Current Analysis also thinks Microsoft could use a show like MWC to showcase Windows Phone and Windows apps, addressing the common complaint that Microsoft’s ecosystems are lacking in software. “If they have partners who are creating Windows 8 apps that are unique, this would be a great place to highlight them,” Greengart said.

Keep in mind, though, that the industry’s major players are moving away from trade shows as a way to drum up people’s attention. Google also plans to tone down its own presence at MWC, as it looks to build up the Nexus brand through separate events. And let's not forget that Google just announced its Chromebook Pixel on Thursday in an intimate event in San Francisco.

Microsoft recently gave up its booth and stopped giving a keynote at CES in January. Though it would be exciting to see Windows and Windows Phone come out swinging with a slew of new devices, running unique software, Microsoft clearly wants to save that for a time when it can hog the spotlight.

In other words, don’t look to MWC as a sign of what’s to come for Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone, but more of a pulse of where things are right now.

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