Have you become dependent on your cell phone? Do you feel naked without it? Has your cell phone become a source of entertainment as well as just a way to make a phone call? Most of you would say yes to all those questions. Which is why the cell phone business has grown so big and continues to get bigger. Any industry that sells its basic product, the handset, in quantities of over one billion a year and has an infrastructure worth billions is something to be reckoned with. And there is lots of evidence of continued growth with unexpected capabilities and features on the way. I got a glimpse of all this at the recent CTIA conference in San Francisco. Let me summarize briefly what I saw and heard—it should give you an idea of how pervasive this industry has become.
The Big Show
The CTIA is the wireless industry's trade association. All the major carriers and manufacturers are members as are many smaller support companies. Their president and CEO Steve Largent, is an ex-Seattle Seahawks wide receiver and former Congressman. The CTIA sponsors two conferences each year: one in the fall and one in the spring. The conference was held in Orlando earlier in the year and at the Moscone center in San Francisco October 22-25. The spring show is a bit larger but the fall show is no mini with its estimated 15,000 attendees and over 300 exhibitors. It is a great way to get the big picture about the cell phone business. But even in the three days I was there I still came away thinking I only saw and heard a fraction of what is really going on.
The keynotes are very entertaining as well as informative. Steve Ballmer of Microsoft gave the opening-day keynote. We don't often think of Microsoft as a cell phone player but they have become a big one over the years. Microsoft desperately wanted their operating system Windows to be used in cell phones. And after years of persistence and making continuous improvements, the Windows Mobile OS (latest version 6) is present in about 140 phones. As cell phones get more complex and handle more functions like cameras, music players, high-speed data, and even TV, a good operating system is essential. Most smart phones run Symbian, BlackBerry, or Palm OS but Windows Mobile is gaining considerable ground.
But that’s not all. Ballmer announced the latest Microsoft product—the System Center Mobile Device Management software which helps companies deploy, manage, and service handsets for voice and data.
And he indicated that Microsoft would not participate in the big spectrum auction coming next year.
On day two, Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook.com talked about the growth of social networking and how it is expanding in cell phones. He was joined by Research in Motion's CEO Mike Lazaridis as they talked about how Facebook now has feeds and messages on the latest BlackBerry phones. Who would have ever thought of that?
Day three brought keynoter Atish Gude, a senior VP at Sprint Nextel in charge of rolling out their forthcoming Xohm WiMAX network. While WiMAX is not in cell phones, this broadband wireless service will no doubt compete with some high speed data services like EV-DO from Sprint and Verizon as well as the HSPA networks of AT&T. Along with Clearwire, Sprint is building out a nationwide wireless broadband network using WiMAX. The latest rumor is that Sprint will spin off the Xohm business or merge it with someone like Clearwire. Stay tuned…
It is impossible to sum up the CTIA conference in this short venue but here are a few of my impressions that will hopefully give you a feel for the magnitude and speed of the developments in this dynamic field:
· Smart phones in the RIM BlackBerry are becoming more popular with consumers. Models like Motorola's Q, Samsung's BlackJack, and the new Palm Centro have really taken off as more consumers want mobile e-mail, Internet access and all the other features of these phones.
· There is a significant increase in the incorporation of high-speed data services into handsets to handle the e-mail and Internet access. Carriers are expanding their data services with improved speeds like EV-DO Rev A and B as well as the HSDPA networks. If they don't do this, WiMAX could replace them. Qualcomm is announcing a chipset that will allow a data cell phone to be easily embedded into laptops in hopes that this will slow the incorporation of WiMAX into laptops.
· Mobile TV is still on the horizon. Lots of companies are jockeying for position and attempting to define the ultimate content that will sell more TV phones. Carriers are all set with the technology to broadcast TV with systems like MediaFLO from Qualcomm. But it appears as though they are holding back as the handset manufacturers build suitable phones and the content issues are resolved. Like how to format TV for the really small screen. Will you buy one?
· Will Google get into the cell phone business? Probably. In on-going talks with Sprint and Verizon, Google appears to be ready to offer some kind of Gphone with Google software and a major search capability. Google may even buy some of that precious 700-MHz spectrum to be auctioned off by the FCC in January. The talk of an open cell-phone system continues that lets users buy phones from sources other than the carriers and add any new features they desire.
· 4G cell phones continue to get talked about but they are still a gleam in the industry's eye. The ITU and 3GPP still haven't completed the Long Term Evolution (LTE) standard so 4G is years off. Qualcomm's Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB) 4G system is still ready but still a future event. In the meantime, 3G is still growing while WiMAX lurks as potential competition.
· The Apple iPhone is still the most talked about cell phone ever. Most manufacturers and carriers lust after a phone like this that everyone wants. There are multiple touch phone products in the works as others vent their jealousy to compete. But can anyone beat Apple with its magic in marketing cool products to the public?
· A major growth segment of the cell phone industry is the machine to machine (M2M) sector. M2M is essentially invisible to the public but more and more cellular systems are being used to monitor and control machines and systems. The biggest segment is probably the transportation industry where trucks, fleet cars, trains and other vehicles are tracked by using GPS and embedded cell phones. Look for continued growth here as others discover this capability.
· Femtocell are still being discussed. These miniature short-range base stations could be immensely disruptive in ways we have not considered. A home femtocell with backhaul via one's broadband cable TV or DSL line will give great at-home coverage plus who knows what other benefits. Will we see them in volume soon?
The next CTIA conference is in Las Vegas in April. It is a great way to stay connected to this hot industry.
The Cell Phone Menace
With the cell phone already becoming our go-to device for communications and entertainment, the cell phone is eclipsing the PC as our electronic toy of choice. And with more applications and versatility to come, we still won't be able to get enough. But some people have definitely had enough. Cell phone users have become a menace not only because of the bad driving and accidents but just because of their nuisance value. All of us have experienced an aggravating cell phone user chatting away—disturbing our own peace and thoughts. How rude. Yet don't cell phone users have rights to use their precious talk box anywhere they want? Maybe so, but what about the rights of those who don't want to hear it, again and again and again?
This annoyance has created a small but growing underground movement in cell phone jammers. I am not kidding. The New York Times recently reported on how many restaurant and theater owners have installed clandestine jammers to ensure that no one can call in or out. Ah . . . peace at last. These illegal devices simply transmit a signal to block all other signals within about 30 feet or so. They are illegal as you can get but some people believe it is worth the risk of an $11,000 fine just to get rid of the cell phone menace. There is always some bad news with the good. Maybe all cars and airplanes should come with one of these built in. Then the roads would be safe and the skies quieter. I am not really advocating this illegal approach but it is a growing underground option. Think about that next time your phone rings at an inappropriate place or time and as you blab on about nothing with others around you. We don't want to hear it. Hey, maybe that is why they invented texting. Quiet for sure. But while driving? It's already becoming a problem and just think of what cell phone TV will do to driving safety. Ah, there’s just so much to look forward to.