If you ask me

This issue we explain how it is possible to develop your career during the economic downturn and we report on the Mobile World Congress going back to basics.

Credit crunch career development

Just because there is a downturn doesn't mean you have to put your career on hold. By all means look twice before turning your back on a familiar post and leaping into a more dynamic environment. But if you're sitting around waiting for a redundancy cheque that may never turn up, you're wasting your life.

I speak from experience. I switched from a large corporate where I had a relatively long-term track record to a join a young company that I consider to be going places after Lehman Brothers' collapse. No one wants to be in the position of starting a new job and face redundancy in the first year - but that risk is always there. Companies go bust in upturns too.

Are there jobs out there, though? Just consider the figures. Estimates for UK economic performance forecast that the economy will shrink by between 1 and 3 per cent in the next year. The bigger firms whose financial woes are capturing the headlines today are going backwards 20-30 per cent year on year. The obvious conclusion is that there must be other businesses out there growing like stink to compensate and keep the country's national decline in single figures.

The truth is that downturns also create business opportunities. Paradoxically there is money to be made saving money. Energy savings are a great example. These are hugely desirable as companies can improve their bottom line and burnish their coporate social responsibility credentials in one fell swoop.

Businesses involved in these areas should be doing well - and will have exciting engineering challenges to address. Despite the downturn, the market still isn't awash with good engineers - especially good analogue engineers. A typical mid-size 250-500-strong technology company will only have a few of these - and they'll tend to hold onto them. If you're that analogue rose in a thicket of digital engineers, there is a lot to be said for joining a strong team where the culture is analogue. You will be tested and stretched - challenged to come up with new ways of thinking.

So what about the potential risks? If the company is a good one, it will have no objection to you giving it a financial once over: 'due diligence' to use the financiers' term. Whether the company is private or listed, its accounts will be available from Companies House. Don't be shy; ask for up-to-date information if the most recent accounts haven't been posted yet. Look at sources of funding. Despite the climate, venture capitalists are still happy to put money behind good management teams with well-run businesses - if they've recently invested in your target company that is always a good sign.

No one knows how long the downturn will last - estimates average around a year or so. That's a long time to stay in a job you've outgrown. Don't let the economic climate put you off. Your skills are still at a premium on the employment market. Remember, hundreds of good analogue engineers haven't been made redundant. Happy hunting.

Gordon Neish, vice president, Nujira

Running flat out to stand still

This year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was host to an industry whose confidence has been shaken by a downturn in handset sales and increasing pressure on operators' revenues. The industry responded on two levels: with plenty of glitz and glamour to reassure itself that its future was brighter than its past; and with solutions to some of the mundane issues that will otherwise hold up development.

First, the glitz and the glamour. A couple of end-of-year surveys suggested that the only bright spot in the mobile business this year would be smartphones, such as Apple's iPhone, and handsets based on Windows Mobile and Google's Android operating system. TI responded with a new version of its OMAP chip, Qualcomm launched a rival chip running at 1GHz, ARM showed a core in a 32nm process, and ST-Ericsson said it was developing a symmetric multiprocessing system-on-chip. This is supercomputing in mobile devices.

Elsewhere both TI and Samsung showed mobiles with built-in projectors, while the pixel count on mobile-phone cameras rose to 12 million in Sony Ericsson's Idou, backed up by software borrowed from Sony's Cybershot range of standalone cameras. Clearly the hope is that cramming in extra features, even beyond the limits of what is rationally useful, can still help sustain handset sales.

The smartphone buzz also brought the announcement of several new applications stores, as operators, handset makers and operating-system providers all tried to cut themselves in on a new revenue stream that Apple pioneered. Microsoft said that Windows Mobile would get access to the Microsoft Marketplace; Nokia said it would offer applications through its Ovi brand; and Orange said it would develop an applications store for the handsets its supports. There may be some value in this approach - latest research from ABI Research suggests that one in six of the American smartphone users they surveyed spent more than $100 on applications last year.

Beyond the glamour, and into the more prosaic, there was plenty of interest in the Android and LiMo operating systems for their ability to reduce the licensing burden that every handset carries. There were also efforts to produce low-cost, 'green' and even solar-powered handsets, to reduce the environmental impact of this billion-unit a year product and to open new markets in developing countries.

Plenty of companies touted mobile security solutions, and others offered over-the-air provisioning and back-up of mobile phones, so that losing your handset needn't also mean losing your personal information and identity to a thief. And the 'web of things' took a step forward with a variety of tagging systems to relate places and things to online data delivered over mobile handsets.

Perhaps this, then, will be the most important outcome of MWC this year. Even as manufacturers showed off their shiniest gadgets, other developers were promoting software and services to make it much easier to own and use mobile phones, for everyone from those in the developing world to high-end smartphone users. If that is what this year's MWC promises, next year's may see an industry revitalised by a few months' focus on the utility and usability, rather than bling.

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