No Cute Android Pins, No Schmidt, No Slide: Google Tones Down Its Presence At MWC This Year

We’re now about a week away from the start of the Mobile World Congress, the large, annual European mobile event put on by the GSM Association that has served as a barometer of the progress of the wireless industry. In planning out what TechCrunch will be doing and seeing during the week in Barcelona, we’ve noticed a gap: Google, and specifically its mobile OS Android, is largely absent.

In years past, the Android area of MWC stole the show: a large space that simply didn’t fit into the word “stand”, it was filled with dot-com bells and whistles like smoothie machines, a slide, and robots. But it was also a place where Google got to show off the multitude of ways that Android was wending its way into the mobile industry through handsets, tablets and more. We have heard that the effort took about $5 million of investment from Google to put up and run. The messaging was big and clear: we’re here; we’re bringing something different to this sluggish, incumbent-led world; and we’re not going away.

And yet, this year, it has. A search on MWC’s exhibitor list finds no results for Google or Android; a no android exhibitorspokesperson confirmed as much to TechCrunch; and others have heard the same message: Google will not have a stand at the event and will instead support its partners. These include companies like Samsung, HTC, Huawei, LG and other big and small device makers developing Android-based handsets and tablets. (That’s not counting those who are not official partners but develop devices based on forked versions of the OS.)

It’s not just the Android stand, it’s about the statement Google is making with its (lack of) people as well.

Eric Schmidt delivered a keynote at the last three years of MWC (2010, 2011, 2012), each time taking over an hour to deliver his latest thoughts and then field questions from the packed audience, chosen at random. More big ideas than hard Google/mobile strategy, it was still impressive to see him command the room and be the human face of Google’s all-present persona. (The impressiveness played out in other ways, too. Last year, I sneaked into the hall early to get a good seat and ended up sitting in the front alongside a throng of smiling Googlers. Dozens of them, it seemed, had made their way to Barcelona for this and the bigger MWC confab.)

This year — unless there is going to be a surprise, unscheduled appearance — Schmidt is not on the public schedule. According to the GSMA’s list of speaker profiles, the company is sending out two people to the official conference, to speak on panels: Peter Hazlehurst, director of product management for Google Wallet (who was also at CES); and Ian Carrington, Google’s mobile and social advertising sales director for northern and central Europe; no one specific to the Android effort. Google, we understand, will have people there, but just in a less public way than before.

So what’s the reason for this? There appear to be a few.

We’ve heard from sources that Google these days is less keen on emphasizing the Android brand — witness the Android Market getting rebranded almost a year ago (after the last MWC) as Google Play. Pulling away from having a strong a presence may fold into that. “Nexus and Galaxy are brands; Android is not,” is how the thinking goes here. It’s a far cry from years past, when Google had a dedicated site to its efforts at the conference, and gave out its popular array of Android pins to fans and those hoping for a neat profit someday on eBay (even making a video about them).

You could also argue that part of the reason why Google does not need to make as big of a push at MWC is because it has already achieved market dominance. In the latest smartphone market share reports from the analysts, IDC, Gartner and Canalys all pegged Android’s share of smartphone shipments as pushing 70% in Q4. With a plethora of handset makers building apps, led by currently the world’s most popular smartphone maker, Samsung, this isn’t too much of a surprise, but could be a sign that Google doesn’t need to toot its own horn quite as much. In this sense, absence is power, not weakness.

There is also the perennial debate of whether hulking conferences like MWC (ditto CES) are simply all that relevant these days, with companies preferring instead to run their own events and better control the message accordingly.

We don’t have Google, but we don’t have others, either: Samsung is also among those refraining from spilling the beans at MWC; HTC is holding a handset event this week, pre-Barcelona — although both will still have executives speaking in the conference and stands at the event to show off their wares; Facebook has two execs appearing on the public conference agenda, VP of partnerships Dan Rose, and VP of mobile partnerships, Vaughan Smith.

Facebook will have a stand this year — the first time, we think — which will set some people wondering, again, whether this more stirrings for a fabled Facebook phone.

It goes without saying that Apple will not doing anything big at MWC — but has it ever?

Nokia will be holding a press conference, however, as will Mozilla and others. Given that Mozilla is launching a big effort into mobile now, and using MWC to spearhead that, it may be that this will end up fuelling some of the buzz at the event instead.

The fact that this year’s event is taking place in a new, larger venue (annoyingly) miles away from the center of town is perhaps also spurring the creation of more off-site fringe events and pushing some to forge more direct contacts with people in the form of smaller meetings, private briefings and smaller events. Perhaps the focus is changing for more than just Google.