Wireless 2009 rewards low expectations with high hopes

With the global economy in a shambles, I didn’t know what to expect from the International CTIA Wireless 2009 event. Yet even with attendance down some 15%, the yearly industry get-together in Las Vegas turned out considerably more upbeat than I expected.

April 8, 2009

6 Min Read
Wireless 2009 rewards low expectations with high hopes

By Tammy Parker

With the global economy in a shambles, I didn’t know what to expect from the International CTIA Wireless 2009 event. Yet even with attendance down some 15%, the yearly industry get-together in Las Vegas turned out considerably more upbeat than I expected.

I feared the worst when I got into the Hilton Hotel for US$45 a night during the CTIA show. I had not stayed at the Hilton for years because I could never justify the US$250+ nightly charge that the hotel extorted from visitors during major shows, a charge it justified based on its being next door to the Las Vegas Convention Center. But with the economy in the dumps, hotel rates across Vegas have plunged precipitously.

As my taxi pulled up to the Hilton on March 30, I noticed that the Hilton’s sign still advertised Star Trek: The Experience, assuring me that I could yet ride the indoor roller-coaster and eat at Quark’s Bar & Restaurant. But I was quickly disappointed to find that Star Trek: The Experience was shuttered on Sept. 1, 2008, as was Quark’s, meaning I’ll never again be served by a waiter in a kitschy Klingon or Borg costume while I eat a sub sandwich dubbed the Photon Torpedo.

The show was starting off on a dismal note, which was compounded by tragedy when I heard that Mark Desautels, CTIA’s 56-year-old vice president of wireless-Internet development, died unexpectedly during the preshow golf tournament, casting a painfully somber pallor on Wireless 2009’s start.

But the show must go on, and by April 1, when the bulk of CTIA’s attendees showed up in Sin City, the overall demeanor of Wireless 2009 had improved. Aside from the usual announcements about new handsets and numerous complaints about the increasing fragmentation of the mobile-OS environment – which was complicated by disclosures from companies such as Samsung regarding their plans to debut Android-based devices – CTIA also brought out lots of news about applications and content. Here are some show highlights that intrigued me.

(1) A plethora of positive metrics and forecasts came out of the event. CTIA announced that US mobile-data service revenues rose 39% year-on-year in 2008, to more than US$32 billion, and that mobile data revenues amounted to nearly 22% of all mobile service revenues last year. In addition, Greg Clayman, MTV Networks’ executive vice president of digital distribution, said the number of MTV mobile-video downloads jumped from 25 million in 2006 to 100 million in 2008. Robert Dotson, T-Mobile USA’s president and CEO, said the operator’s customers who carry the Android-based G1 handset use data services 50 times more than its voice-centric phone users and noted that 80% of G1 users use the devices to browse the Web daily. Ivan Seidenberg, CEO of Verizon Communications, forecast future mobile penetration rates of more than 500%, with consumers carrying a multitude of mobile-enabled devices.

2) VoIP was a focal point at the CTIA show, with Skype announcing that its VoIP service is now available through the Apple App Store for use on the Apple iPhone, but only in Wi-Fi mode, and will be available in a BlackBerry-compatible version in May. Before the CTIA show ended, open-Internet advocacy group Free Press, in an ex parte filing, urged the US Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether Apple and AT&T are illegally blocking the use of Skype over AT&T’s 3G network. Meanwhile, startup Zer01 disclosed plans to launch a US$69.99-a-month unlimited mobile voice and data service, which will work over an unnamed GSM partner’s GPRS, EDGE or HSPA data channels, delivering packet-based traffic to Zer01’s virtual private network (VPN) for subsequent transmission over the Internet.

3) Application stores and development communities abounded. To no one’s great surprise, Research in Motion opened its BlackBerry App World virtual storefront, which will offer about 1,000 applications at launch, divided among 13 categories. Microsoft released details about its upcoming Windows Marketplace for Mobile. Palm expanded access to its Palm Mojo software-development kit, though the SDK is still undergoing a refinement process. In addition, the company disclosed that developer MotionApps is working on Classic, an emulator that will let Palm OS apps run on WebOS devices, such as Palm’s upcoming Pre smartphone. Operator AT&T also introduced an App Beta program that will enable developers to trial their apps with AT&T customers. Although it stopped short of being an actual AT&T app store, the program lays the groundwork in case the operator opts to take that path in the future. And Nokia is creating its own app store, which it hopes to differentiate by building into the apps a variety of location and social-networking features. The vendor also teamed up with Tim Kring, creator of NBC TV show “Heroes”, to create an interactive multiplatform narrative project that is code-named TEVA.

4) Anssi Vanjoki, Nokia’s executive vice president of markets, dismissed WiMAX, saying that it “is going to wind up like Betamax,” because LTE will dominate the next-generation mobile market. Despite the disrespect that Vanjoki and others showed to the Intel-backed technology, WiMAX gained attention with Clearwire’s unveiling of a US$139 Clear Spot router, manufactured by CradlePoint, that connects up to eight Wi-Fi devices to the Internet via the operator’s WiMAX network. Clearwire also unveiled the WiMAX Innovation Network, which it hopes will encourage Silicon Valley developers to create new apps for use on WiMAX. The company said it will build a test WiMAX network covering 20 square miles in the Valley that developers can access by late summer.

5) The best business-related chuckle I got from my time in Vegas occurred during Billboard’s Mobile Entertainment Live event, where Matchbox Twenty lead singer Rob Thomas discussed his use of mobile to market his music. In response to a question about what a Rob Thomas application for the iPhone would look like, he offered two suggestions. One was a visual app in which his fully clothed image would appear on an iPhone screen, only to be replaced by an image of him wearing a bikini when the iPhone is turned upside down. The second was an app in which a user could poke an image of Thomas on the iPhone screen, eliciting a loud “Ow!” from the image every time it’s poked. Thomas said this app would appeal to fans and non-fans alike.

On my way out of the Hilton to catch a taxi back to the airport, I won US$40 on a slot machine in the Space Quest casino, the last vestige of the Hilton’s defunct Star Trek theme. The two extra twenties in my pocket didn’t hurt my overall impression from Wireless 2009 that the North American mobile industry is weathering the economic storm pretty well, all things considered, and players in this fascinating business have plenty of hope and ambition for the future.

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