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Wed 26 Feb 2014 03:30 PM

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The biggest innovation at MWC isn't what you think

For all the talk of self-driving cars and wearable tech, the real deal in Barcelona was something much simpler, says Daniel Shane

The biggest innovation at MWC isn't what you think

Cars that can drive themselves and mobile phones that measure your heart rate were just some of the high-tech innovations unveiled at this week's Mobile World Congress (MWC), but the real game changer in Barcelona was something that was on the face of it altogether more ordinary. 

While Ford's new Focus model may be capable of parallel parking itself, and Samsung's new Galaxy S5 phone likely to provide a stronger challenge to Apple's iPhone than ever before, the most buzz at the annual event was created by technology that will allow users to make free phone calls.

The announcement by WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum that the instant messaging service would begin offering free calls came just days after it was announced that social networking giant Facebook would be hoovering up the company for a cool $19bn.

Koum was not giving much away during his keynote speech at the conference, other than that the service would "focus on simplicity". The addition of phone calls will go some way towards justifying the Silicon Valley start-up's humongous price tag. It will also bring WhatsApp, and Facebook, into a heated competition with the more established Skype and its parent Microsoft.

During his own keynote speech at MWC, the Facebook founder and CEO was clear in his logic for acquiring WhatsApp, which is estimated to have more than 465m users worldwide, yet generated little revenue. 

"The reality is that there are very few services that reach 1bn people in the world," he said. "They're all incredibly valuable, much more valuable," Zuckerberg added, when quizzed on whether this was sufficient to shell out billions of dollars on buying the firm.

While Apple continues its policy of not revealing new products at events other than its own, its rivals were busy with a number of glittering unveils in Barcelona this week.

Topping the bill was Samsung's Galaxy S5, which builds upon the popularity of the preceding S4 with fingerprint sensor technology, water resistance and a 16 MP camera. Even more mouthwatering though was the Korean giants new line-up of wearable tech, including the new Gear Fit fitness band, which will rival Nike's FitBit and Fuel products.

Not be outdone, recently bought out Nokia unveiled its new X smartphone, which comes bundled with Skype and runs on the latest Android software. 

Meanwhile, China's Huawei continued its obsession with making the lightest and thinnest high-tech gadgets known to man, with its MediaPad X1. Even more impressive though was its TalkBand, its first foray into wearable tech which allows users to make phone calls and monitor their fitness at the same time.

For the Gulf's telecoms operators it was a fairly understated affair in Barcelona. Saudi Telecom Company (STC), whose branding was plastered at each and every turn at MWC, announced a deal with Germany's SAP that will see it increase the efficiency of its network.

Etisalat, the UAE's incumbent operator, in a similar vein said it had appointed Ericcson to implement improvements to its own infrastructure in a new MoU, which will pave the way for the operator to deliver faster and more efficient LTE and smart service over the next few years.