Las Vegas - Land Of Gambling, Elvis and The Unwired Internet
By Robert Fine, Fri Mar 23 00:00:00 GMT 2001

What lured CTIA attendees to the desert of Las Vegas - former President Carter perhaps?


CTIA (Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association), the leading United States telecom organization, has just completed its annual wireless trade show here in the sun-drenched desert of Las Vegas, Nevada.

The venue was an interesting change from last year's show which took place in the just as decadent city of New Orleans. One trade show exhibitor explained that the only problem with having the show in Vegas this year is that instead of attendees coming to the show floor, they're out playing blackjack. Nonetheless, the corridors were jam-packed with attendees, hardware manufacturers, venture capitalists and growing startups.

But, the CTIA trade show over the last couple of years has been going through a bit of an identity crisis. Before, this is where one went every year to check out the latest base station equipment from Motorola or to make a large purchase of RF (radio frequency) attenuators for building out cellular sites. Today, it is a mish mash of traditional telco hardware vendors lined up against wireless Internet companies pitching the newest instant messaging applications. Coupled with Elvis impersonators walking the trade show floor and CTIA's opening night reception at Liberace's mansion/museum, it made for a very surreal experience.

The keynote speeches included leading high-tech executives such as Craig Barrett, CEO of Intel Corp., Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Corp. and Jerry Yang, Co-founder of Yahoo. All of which were interviewed talk show host style by CTIA President & CEO Thomas Wheeler. It was only Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer that opted not to be interviewed and instead performed a thirty-minute long marketing presentation about Microsoft's .NET strategy.

Much of the buzz, discussions and arguments this year were over the coming of 3G into the marketplace, or more to the matter, the delay. As much as there was excitement over new wireless technologies, applications and platforms coming into the market, there was a great amount of pragmatism taking place around the show.

The U.S. technology market collapse is still very fresh in people's minds and is directly affecting the life and health of many of the companies here at show. More attention is being paid to being profitable from the start and even though a company may have a great product, unless they can get a carrier to buy-in and support them, the outlook is weary.

Over at the venture capital discussion, it was clear that the wireless Internet marketplace offers a very different atmosphere than the traditional Internet economy. In order to be successful in an industry where the carriers control and own the airwaves, a company's success is directly linked to the relationships it can forge with wireless carriers around the world. Trying to work with companies as large as the telcos can be as difficult and frustrating as working within a bureaucratric government.

When asked what the hottest areas within the wireless Internet space are, Nokia Ventures Managing Partner John Malloy replied that the most important applications would revolve around security, privacy and micropayments.

Kevin Fong, Managing Partner of Mayfield Ventures added that the reason these areas are hot was not simply because they were wireless Internet related applications, but because they were difficult problems to solve. And those companies that could design, execute and make a profit solving any one of these problems were going to get the most attention from investors.

Cliff Higgerson, a partner from CommVentures, was frustrated that the current cellular system infrastructure barely supports voice and felt that there was investment opportunity in companies that could increase the efficiency of cellular components, citing amplifiers as a prime example.

The mobile entertainment panel centered around some interesting technologies emerging in wireless, and some very strong feelings and convictions emerged from the panelists. Andy Nulman, President of a wireless games design company called Airborne Entertainment, captured the interest of the audience when he bluntly stated that the wireless industry essentially screwed itself over the past couple of years by over-hyping the technology of WAP and not managing the expectations of consumers. He added that if 2.5G and 3G were to succeed, we must take care not to make the same mistake twice.

Two new competing technologies for the allegiance of wireless software developers made its presence felt at the mobile entertainment discussion. MP3.com's Shawn Conahan demonstrated one of the first applications developed for Qualcomm's new Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (BREW) development platform. BREW, an open, standard platform for wireless devices, allows developers to create tiny C applications that can be downloaded or streamed to a microbrowser, providing more interactive and robust applications to consumers.

Competing with BREW is Sun Microsystems J2EE Java applet development platform. Developers already familiar with the Java programming language can create very small applets that can also be downloaded to a microbrowser.

It is more than coincidence that the name and marketing of BREW is similar to Java. Qualcomm appears ready to take on Sun Microsystems to battle for the hearts of developers. In the end, Starbucks is the only guaranteed winner.

Motorola is one of the first handset manufacturers to support J2EE and is just now releasing handsets into the marketplace. CEO Satoshi Nakajima of UIEvolution demonstrated a number of compelling Java applet games which included color and very in-depth user gameplay.

Nakajima joined the candor of Airborne's Nulman when he criticized the advertising campaign of Sprint PCS for not being able to capture the imagination of American consumers when it comes to the wireless Internet. Nakajima cited NTT DoCoMo's ability to create commercials that showcased games on the i-Mode system that are capturing large amounts of users and traffic for its network.

MP3.com showed the audience a music streaming application that would allow a user to pick a song from the MP3.com database and have it streamed wirelessly to their phone with very low bandwidth requirements, stating it would be suitable for 2.5G and even 2G environments.

There were two definite highlights that captured the most attention of the audience at the CTIA show. The first was Charmed Technology's fashion show. It was a perfect marriage created between the high tech wireless industry and the design conscious fashion houses such as Hugo Boss.

What self-respecting techno geek wouldn't be enticed by a wireless computer attached to a scantily clad fashion model? Not I.

Charmed Technology showed-off various concept devices such as the "Charmed Tie Clip Badge", a badge designed for executives and businessmen for exchanging and storing personal data, and "The Lizzy", a waist-mounted computer that will transform a person into a mobile, walking Internet portal.

Many of the devices may seem a distant fantasy, but as wireless data becomes more pervasive and filters to the fashion conscious adults of today, the "Charmed Broach Badge" may not be as silly as it sounds.

The second highlight was former United States President Jimmy Carter's keynote address on the last day of the show. It was an obvious crowd drawer for CTIA, and as enjoyable as it was to have former President Carter address CTIA, it was unclear as to the connection with the wireless industry. Unfortunately during the entire discussion, the subject of wireless never came up.

However, President Carter did tell the audience at the end that he was thankful to be at the event, and that the wireless industry was integral in helping deploy communications to the developing countries of the world.

CTIA 2002 will be taking place in Orlando, Florida next March. And even though we won't have Elvis impersonators to deal with, there will be always be Mickey Mouse and Goofy.

Bob Fine is a co-founder and President of The Cool Blue Company, a media company covering the wireless Internet for consumers which includes Cool WAP Site of the Day.com.