With the US mobile phone industry's leading conference kicking off in Las Vegas, I thought it might be fun to write a small "pre-brief" of the trends to expect from the show. This CTIA Show comes close on the heels of the huge, Europe-based Mobile World Congress, and I would have dropped a blog post from there...if my Netbook hadn't been stolen! Here's what to expect from the CTIA show:
App Stores: What was innovative about Apple's App Store? It is a single point of sales, it's trusted, compatible, it offers tested apps, and it gives a large (70%) revenue share to the application developer. Nothing new there, but damn, what a success. Once again, Apple succeeded by (not doing anything revolutionary, but) using a simple recipe that makes sense and motivates all stakeholders. Sadly, a similar 'imode' app store has been done by DoCoMo in Japan since 2000, but North American carrier imitations usually neglect being remotely 'open' and don't offer a large revenue share to developers. Turns out, this is fairly important if you want to stimulate a large, diverse offering of useful, high-quality applications. Anyway, all those companies that didn't copy imode are now copying Apple, so expect to see more news around Microsoft's store, RIM Blackberry's store, the Android store, and more. The trend is good, since it will get more money in developers' hands, and should help some phone owners find applications that make their devices more valuable.
Mobile Broadband/Embedded Broadband: There will be lots of talk and probably a bunch of announcements about mobile broadband access at the show. I am referring specifically to the use of cellular broadband modems in devices that are not phones, such as Netbooks, Laptops, cameras, readers, media players, etc. I am moderating a panel on this subject at the CTIA show, and I'm thrilled to be doing it, because it is such a major trend. The two driving forces to this trend are the 3G networks that are already in place, and carrier willingness to sell new kinds of service plans. Carriers have been somewhat stuck in a rut of thinking of mobile access as "one phone, one contract, $60/mo." But recently, their thinking has been changing, and the notion of wholesale businesses of selling connections to devices like Amazon's Kindle is gaining steam. Expect to see more news of daily connection plans for laptops (like Wi-Fi Hotspots), and wireless data bundled in the price of other consumer electronics.
Femtocells: A femtocell is a small box that looks like a Wi-Fi router, and similarly plugs in at your home or small office. But instead or routing laptops to the Internet, a femtocell routes telephone calls from your mobile phone to your carrier. Put one of these in a home or office with poor cell reception, and instantly get four bars. That's good for you and the carrier, who gets to keep you as a customer. But what also benefits the carrier is that your phone's traffic is now carried over your broadband connection, saving their towers from having to allocate capacity to you. Sprint has it, T-Mobile uses a special variant, Verizon has recently launched it, and AT&T is piloting these devices. I expect femtocells to successfully creep into the marketplace, and we'll hear a fair bit about femtocells at the show, but also other new ways of delivering cellular service like Distributed Antenna Systems, Repeaters, and such.
Backhaul: Wireless data use is taking off. Driven by flat rates, popular and easy to use phones like iPhone, and supplemented by growing use of cellular modems to laptops and Netbooks, people are finally exchanging significant amounts of data traffic from cell towers. But these towers were initially put in place for highly compressed, narrowband voice traffic. As such, each tower was often connected by a meager T1 line. The connection that the towers have to the core network is called "backhaul," and yesterday's backhaul is woefully inadequate for tomorrow's data traffic loads. The short-term solution was to just add more T1s...but the costs of this rapidly become prohibitive. So the long-term solutions that will be discussed at length in Las Vegas are point-to-point microwave wireless relays, metro Ethernet, and fiber optic connections.
The Palm Pre: I'm not sure when the bandwagon is going to hit the trail for this device, but I'm saddling up right now. I've been negative on Palm for a while, but I saw the Pre at CES in January and was pleasantly surprised, but unfortunately didn't allocate much time to Palm. Subsequently, I spent some time with the Pre at MWC in February, and was very impressed. Of all the phones I have seen since the iPhone came out, this is the first one that I think may be better -- and I am very fond of the iPhone. I use a very powerful HTC Windows phone, and when I see the Pre in action, I find myself repeatedly saying "I wish my phone could do that." 'Synergy,' the Pre's ability to pull together your contacts, emails, calendars into one consolidated view, is a favorite element. But what really struck me was the User Interface, which is very visual, very touch, and very intuitive. I felt the same way I felt when I first saw the iPhone in action. The Pre is not an evolution of previous Palms. It is a new starting point, and like the iPhone, it seems devoid of classic silo thinking and lousy UI baggage. I can't predict whether the developer community will rally around the Pre, or whether Sprint and Palm will be successful in selling big volumes, but I want to call this one early: the Pre is a great smartphone.
More iPhone "killers": We've seen handset vendors offer so-called iPhone Killers at every turn since June 2007. I have found almost every such claim to be unfounded over the past 2 years. I have written that a touch screen and square icons do not an iPhone Killer make. But quarter-by-quarter, the competitors' claims get more and more credible. While HTC, Nokia, RIM, Samsung, and LG make incremental progress to matching the iconic device, I think Palm has the real bomb to drop, if they manage to get the Pre to market on time.
Android: The past year was almost devoid of Android handset announcements. Barcelona was strangely silent on that front. In fact, we haven't heard much about new Android handhelds since the T-Mo G1 was announced early in 2008! But there's enough rumors floating around to suspect a batch of Android announcements this week. Let's wait and see.
Google Voice: Google recently announced their Google Voice service, and it has created quite a stir in the industry. The fixed carriers have long felt threatened by Google, although the search giant had yet to fire a shot across the mobile carriers' bow. So long as it stayed in search, email, web VoIP, advertising, and location services, Google was only a thorn in the cellcos' side. But with the addition of Google Voice (GV), Google is now going straight at the heart of the carrier's core service. GV is essentially a disintermediation play, where users will use just one phone number, provided by Google, and can intelligently route and manage their phone calls to desk, cellphone, voicemail, email, etc., by using a web dashboard interface. By using a Google phone number, users needn't even tell anyone their cellular or landline numbers -- the carriers become pipes for the Google Voice customer. Expect to see and hear some responses, which have already started from other newcomers like Skype, or classic solution vendors like AlcaLu.
Meet Huawei: If you are not familiar with this company yet, better learn how to pronounce the name. Huawei is the leading example of the next generation of telecom infrastructure providers out of China. They have been selling competitive equipment for years, but carriers in Western countries have been reluctant to adopt their products based on a perceived quality gap with leading vendors like Ericsson, Nortel, Motorola, and Alcatel-Lucent. But the winds are shifting. Tougher economic times, paired with some successful Huawei reference cases in Leap Wireless, Cox cable, and Canadian telcos, prove that Huawei can compete on quality and price. Huawei is growing its presence in the US, recently opening offices here in Silicon Valley. Could a major US carrier deal be in the making?