Smartphone vendors have a lot to prove in Barcelona

Big high-definition screens and quad-core processors in thin form factors expected to be trendy at Mobile World Congress

The pressure is on HTC and LG Electronics to show they can compete with Apple and Samsung Electronics in the smartphone market by showing off impressive products at Mobile World Congress, which starts in Barcelona later this month.

Smartphone sales during the fourth quarter were dominated by Apple and Samsung. The two companies had almost 50 percent of the market, compared to about 25 percent in the previous year, according to data from market research company Strategy Analytics.

But as Samsung decides to take a step back from MWC at this year, and Apple skips it as always, other vendors will get a chance to shine, and they need it, according to Geoff Blaber, analyst at CCS Insight.

"When you look at HTC and LG, in particular, both companies need a big, big refresh to their product roadmaps, and show they have products to turn things around," said Blaber.

HTC has stated that it will launch fewer but more high-quality phones this year, while also stepping up its LTE push. Rumored smartphones include a high-end model with a high-definition screen measuring 4.7 inches screen, a quad-core processor and Android 4.0.

LG's new flagship, dubbed the X3, is also reported to have the same hardware specs. The company is also expected to expand its LTE (Long Term Evolution) portfolio. Add to that a continued focus on making phones as slim as possible, according to CCS Insight.

After Apple, ZTE and Huawei were the fastest-growing smartphone vendors in the fourth quarter, according to market research company Gartner.

Both are both expected to launch high-end smartphones in Barcelona. Huawei announced the Android 4.0-based Ascend P1 S, and is expected to build on that at the show. Rumors include a quad-core smartphone from it, as well.

ZTE may sell more phones than Huawei, but the company needs to close the quality gap on Huawei in smartphones, according to Blaber. Huawei has arguably moved further ahead in terms of quality and time-to-market, he said.

This year's show also comes at an opportune time for Google, which this week received European and U.S. government approval of its Motorola Mobility acquisition.

How the acquisition will affect the Android ecosystem will be on the mind of many people, but they shouldn't expect many answers from Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who will once again give a keynote.

"I don't think its time for Google to do that yet; more information will instead come later this year and next year. Android lost market share in Western Europe in the fourth quarter for the first time, and Google is dependent on its partners for growth, so it needs to be careful," said Francisco Jeronimo, research manager at IDC.

Google's purchase of Motorola wasn't the only acquisition that got the thumbs up this week. Sony also finalized its purchase of Ericsson's part of Sony Ericsson, a company that also had a challenging fourth quarter. The company will be renamed Sony Mobile Communications. It too has to show it can remain relevant by taking advantage of Sony's other services and products.

Samsung has chosen not to launch the Galaxy S III -- even though it is already showing it to operators -- because the company wants to go head-to-head with Apple and the next iPhone in June, according to Jeronimo. Also, the Galaxy S II still has good momentum and that, combined with the Galaxy Note and Nexus, means the company doesn't need the new model yet, according to Blaber. The company is keeping quiet until closer to the launch, lessening the risk for patent litigation directed at it, he said.

Samsung is still expected to launch a number of smartphones and a 10-inch version of the Galaxy Note, which allows users to write and draw on the screen with a stylus.

While there are a lot of reasons to look forward to MWC, there is a threat looming over this year's event. The metro and bus workers from TMB, the main public transport operator in the metropolitan area of Barcelona, have announced plans to strike. If the strike happens, comprehensive contingency plans are in place, the GSM Association said in a statement on Friday.

But those assurances aren't very convincing, said Blaber.

"You can't get a taxi in Barcelona at the best of times, let alone during MWC. So I think it is going to be chaos, absolute chaos," he said.

MWC runs from Feb. 27 to March 1.

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