The Mobile World Congress countdown is well and truly in full swing. Between 24 and 27 February, all eyes in the technology world will focus on the Fira Gran Via conference centre in Barcelona, where thousands of industry figureheads, spokespeople and experts will gather for one of the biggest tradeshows on the tech calendar. The ITProPortal team is making its final preparations before diving, laptop first, into the pandemonium.
Our diaries are absolutely heaving with keynotes, launches and interviews and we can't wait to get our teeth stuck into some juicy news. Apart from Apple, all of the major names in technology will be on hand to showcase their latest products and chat with us about the biggest trends shaping the future. This year's event is set to be one of the most memorable ever, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Samsung's Galaxy S5 preparing to dominate the headlines.
We've broken down some of the most exciting things to keep an eye out for at the show, so read on and get salivating.
The resurrection of brand Galaxy?
Unsurprisingly, much of the chatter in the lead up to this year's MWC has revolved around Samsung's activities. The South Korean giant looks odds-on to launch its new flagship Galaxy S5 smartphone, as well as a trio of Galaxy Tab 4 slates. Mutterings of a Galaxy Gear 2 unveil have also been heard. Whatever the reality, Samsung is in need of a big win. The company has been tearing things up at the top end of the consumer gadget market for years now, thanks to its Galaxy range of products, but the brand is arguably now at its weakest point since its initial launch.
The undeniably popular (yet polycarbonate-clad) Galaxy S4 has been eclipsed not only by the iPhone 5S but also by the HTC One and Sony Xperia mobiles over the last year. Not just this, but the launch of the critically-acclaimed Galaxy Note 3 at IFA 2013 was tainted by that of the ugly, painfully limited, expensive and embarrassingly poorly-received Galaxy Gear smartwatch, which has done a pretty good job of single-handedly destroying what was once an extremely strong brand. Who knew a watch could be as destructive as a wrecking ball?
According to the rumour-mill, Samsung plans to fight back with two versions of the S5: an €800 (£660) metal model and a €650 (£535) polycarbonate one. It is also expected to pack a large 5.2in 2,650 x 1,440 resolution display, an enhanced 16-megapixel rear camera and some form of biometric technology - a fingerprint sensor or an iris scanner, depending on who you believe. Meanwhile, the 7in, 8in and 10in Tab 4 tablets will apparently boast much of the same specifications as the Tab 3 range of devices, sparking further rumours of a more wallet-friendly pricing scheme.
Are you impressed? Or do you think Samsung's potential new metal/plastic S4 strategy is a blatant imitation of Apple's iPhone 5S and 5C model? We'll be covering the South Korean powerhouse's big launches live from Barcelona next week.
Decent wearable tech (please)
Wearable tech is one of the hottest topics in our industry right now but, to date, our expectations have far exceeded reality. Google Glass is tacky, creepy and seems to only appeal to weirdos (and Google knows it), the Pebble smartwatch can't really be described as "cutting edge" and the Galaxy Gear's numerous woes have been painfully well-documented. Apple's fabled iWatch looks like it could be the only thing that could lift this sector, but that hasn't discouraged Huawei.
Most of us expect the Chinese giant to launch its own take on the smartwatch at a special event this Sunday. In fact, the company has been roundly criticised for the news before even announcing anything even remotely smartwatch-related. If it does indeed happen, I think it could only be a good move for Huawei. After all, any company worth its salt would surely fancy itself against some of the wrist-bound dross making up the market right now. However, it surely won't be long before the hypocrites in charge of the US government label any such device a threat to the world's privacy.
Samsung's second attempt at a decent wearable device has to be much, much better than its first. If my earlier rant hasn't quite convinced you of just how bad the Galaxy Gear is, maybe this will: back in late October, over 30 per cent of North American buyers had returned the smartwatch to shops, demanding their money back. The Galaxy Gear 2 is rumoured to support GPS, improved battery life and enhanced compatibility with smartphones. We have reason to believe that Samsung may also replace Android with its own Tizen OS on the device, which could prove an interesting talking point.
While the inclusion of Tizen at Android's expense might at first seem the equivalent of replacing the windows of a roofless house, this could actually be a smart move. Almost all attention will be on the S5 when Samsung launches its new devices on Monday, so this could provide a fairly gentle entry point for Tizen.
HTC could actually prove the most active advocate for wearable tech at the show, if certain rumours are to be believed. A leak has hinted that the struggling Taiwanese manufacturer will unveil a smartwatch prototype, akin to Qualcomm Toq, as well as a music playing, Google Now-based smartwatch and a high-tech wristband. It is unclear whether any of these devices will go into final production, but they would surely make one hell of a statement.
Like many other MWC attendees, I performed a comedic double take when I heard that Mark Zuckerberg would be on hand in Barcelona. The king of Facebook will take centre-stage on Monday evening (a couple of hours before Samsung's presentation) in what will be one of the biggest events to hit MWC in a long time. ITProPortal will be in the crowd, covering the speech as it happens with a dedicated live blog, which you'll find on our homepage on the day.
But what will Zuckerberg be preaching about? Your guess is as good as ours, in this case. No doubt he will talk up Facebook's new products, mobile strategy and overall roadmap for the future, throwing in a few pearls of entrepreneurial wisdom now and again. Also, the timing of that WhatsApp deal could hardly have been better.
However, this slot also provides a great opportunity for Zuckerberg to defend his site, which has come in for an incredible amount of stick lately. The last two months have been littered with headlines predicting the death of Facebook and a devastating downwards spiral of doom for the social network. According to a recent multi-country, EU-backed report, teenagers are turning their noses up at the site, simultaneously increasing the average age of Facebook's user base. While many have taken this to mean that Facebook is fast becoming a dinosaur, we disagree, as demonstrated by our fierce debate during the fourth episode of our Tech News Weekly podcast.
Today's Facebook is barely recognisable from the site that launched back in February 2004, and the site will continue to transform and refresh itself. For those who sneer that Facebook is now the pensioner of the social scene, did you cry tears of joy when scores of teenagers dominated Twitter with #WeWillAlwaysSupportYouJustin (and other such Bieber-related hashtags) in the wake of the singer's DUI arrest? Also, has anybody ever heard of LinkedIn?
If one good thing has come out of the NSA/GCHQ spying scandal, it is that much of the world is significantly more privacy-savvy than it used to be. For those with security at the forefront of their minds, Blackphone's MWC debut will be of particular interest. The joint venture (formed by Silent Circle and Geeksphone) will take the stage on Monday afternoon and is highly likely to launch Blackphone, the first mobile that claims to completely shut out nosey government agencies.
The device, which we like to think of as the Batman of the smartphone world, is still shrouded in mystery but we reckon that its specs will be on a par with those of several flagships currently on the market. It is, however, likely to be a little more expensive.
New kids on the block
Two companies ITProPortal is particularly excited about getting up close and personal with are Jolla and Yota, both of which have made waves with their eye-catching mobile handsets.
A group of former Nokia employees last year decided to launch a brand new smartphone complete with a brand new operating system - Sailfish OS. The €400 (£330) handset features pretty decent, if unremarkable, specs but the real magic lies in Sailfish's complete compliance with Android. This basically means that Jolla users won't suffer from the same dearth of apps currently plaguing Windows Phone customers.
We first came across Yota almost exactly 12 months ago, at last year's edition of Mobile World Congress, and we were impressed by what we saw. The Russian firm has since launched the dual-screen, always-on YotaPhone across much of Europe, and we think it's one to keep an eye on. The rear side of the device features an intriguing E-ink screen, which constantly displays information and pictures, such as message notifications or maps, so you don't have to waste time and battery life constantly waking up your mobile. We felt that the YotaPhone was well-built and innovative when we played with it last time around, so we're excited about finding out how its parent company has worked on fulfilling its product's massive potential. We'll be spending some one-on-one time with Yota in Barcelona, so stayed tuned for more news.
Normandy spells D-Day for Nokia
Nokia is another smartphone manufacturer that needs to make a big impression in Barcelona, and it looks like the Finnish outfit is up for the task. A Nokia smartphone running Android has long been rumoured, but it seems like the device is finally (almost) here. Code-named 'Normandy' but expected to launch as 'Nokia X', the mid-range handset looks set to pack a 4in 854 x 480 resolution display, Android 4.4 KitKat, a 5-megapixel rear camera and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 dual-core processor. I'm sure many will agree that embracing the Google side is a sound strategy, but has it come six months too late?
Which is the fairest smartphone of them all?
If you're not at least slightly excited by the GSMA Mobile Awards, I'm not entirely sure why you're reading this. Of the eight distinct categories listed, we're licking our lips for number five: the best mobile handsets and devices. Last year saw the Galaxy S3 crowned as the king of smartphones, but how things have changed over the past 12 months. Samsung's current flagship isn't even listed as a nominee, with Apple's iPhone 5S instead set to do battle with the HTC One, LG G2, Nokia Lumia 1020 and Galaxy Note 3. I was annoyed to learn that James Corden will be hosting the awards ceremony, but I'm sure I'll get by. Now who's your money on?
That barely scratches the surface of what to expect though. With other technology powerhouses like LG, Asus, Mozilla, Motorola, Intel and Lenovo promising their own special announcements, we know we're in for quite a spectacle. Sony might even try to steal Samsung's thunder by unleashing the Xperia Z2 and Xperia Z2 tablet. Still, don't forget about some of the lesser known players, like Archos, ZTE and Alcatel, for whom MWC is the perfect platform to reach a prime, worldwide audience. A few surprises are definitely on the cards.
So sit back, relax and head onwards to our dedicated MWC 2014 hub. Things are going to get frantic really soon, so now's a better time than any to get yourself up to date. And remember, ITProPortal will be providing comprehensive live coverage of the tradeshow, so stick with us.