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CTIA show to highlight mobile Web

Semiannual conference, this week in San Francisco, to take a closer look at how handset makers, access providers, and media companies are driving the adoption of wireless browsing.

SAN FRANCISCO--Mainstream U.S. wireless-phone subscribers are finally using the mobile Web, and everyone from handset makers to mobile operators to application developers to advertisers is gearing up to get a piece of the action.

The growing trend is likely to be a hot topic at the CTIA's Wireless IT & Entertainment trade show, which kicks off Wednesday and runs through Friday at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco.

The show, which follows the industry's big gathering in the spring, is expected to attract more than 15,000 attendees, with some 250 companies exhibiting at the show.

The fall CTIA is really a show with dual personalities: one catering to a corporate information technology crowd and the other geared toward entertainment and advertising executives. This mix makes pulling out one central theme a bit of a challenge. But if a theme does exist at this year's show, it's likely that the mobile Web is finally taking off in the United States.

Out of the more than 255 million mobile-phone users in the States, more than 40 million actively use their handsets to surf the Web, according to Nielsen Mobile, which provides consumer research on the telecommunications and mobile-media markets. Nielsen analysts say the mobile Internet has hit a critical mass in the States, but it still has a lot of growth ahead of it.

Growth in the mobile Web is largely being fueled by faster networks. The major domestic cell phone operators have mostly completed building their 3G networks, with the exception of T-Mobile USA. And some, such as Sprint Nextel, are already moving on to a fourth-generation network.

As the 3G network footprints expand, and 4G services come online, users will get an even better surfing experience on their phones, which will lead to more adoption.

Craig McCaw, chairman of new nationwide WiMax network Clearwire, will be one of several speakers taking the stage Wednesday. Clearwire announced earlier this year that it's merging with Sprint Nextel's WiMax division. The venture has gained financial backing from major cable companies, as well as from Google and Intel. McCaw will likely give an update on the planned acquisition and talk about how his company has been growing its current WiMax service.

While faster networks are necessary to spur mobile Web usage, it's not the only element that's important to drive adoption. New multimedia and Web-capable phones that can operate on these faster networks are needed, as are new applications. To spur faster adoption, carriers have been talking about opening up their networks to get new devices and services on their networks more quickly.

During the opening keynote on Wednesday, CEOs from three of the top four wireless operators in the country will talk about how they are making their networks more open. Lowell McAdam, CEO of Verizon Wireless; Robert Dotson, CEO of T-Mobile USA; and Dan Hesse, CEO of Sprint Nextel will sit down together in a panel discussion.

Also on Wednesday, Marco Boerries, executive vice president of Connected Life at Yahoo, will take the stage for a keynote address to talk about Yahoo's mobile initiatives. Although it's still early to call the major players, Yahoo has been positioning itself as a dominant player in the mobile market. Its Yahoo Mail is the most used site on the mobile Web, with 14 million unique visitors a month as of May 2008, according to Nielsen Mobile.

In addition to the keynotes, there will likely be a flood of application announcements this week, as companies large and small try to address the market. For example, Verizon Wireless will be making a series of announcements around mobile content, including a new mobile Web site to aggregate and provide access to social-networking sites like MySpace. It will also announce a new enhanced mobile New York Times Web page that that highlights political content and is specifically designed for Verizon devices.

And among a flurry of other announcements, Verizon also plans to reveal a new service that allows people to personalize their ringtones and mobile music.

Nokia is also preparing some announcements that focus on applications and content. The world's largest cell phone maker earlier this year launched its application services platform, called Ovi. The company is expected to highlight some enhancements to the platform this week. Specifically, people will now be able to back up their contacts, calendar, notes, and tasks between their phone and Ovi.com. And they'll be able to do this for free, which sets Nokia apart from other competitors.

Nokia is expected to make other announcements about services and applications for its mobile handsets on Tuesday evening. The company is hosting a press event in the early evening, so look for updates after the news is announced.

As for announcements of new devices, rumors have been circulating for months that Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, has been working on a couple of new smartphone models. The company's CEO, Jim Balsillie, plans to take the keynote stage on Thursday. But it's not yet known he will be talking about any of the rumored new products, such as a flip-style BlackBerry or the touch-screen BlackBerry Thunder, which is predicted to give the iPhone real competition.

Sony Ericsson, one of Nokia's rivals, announced on Tuesday the new G705 slider phone, which supports 3G and a full HTML browser for surfing the Web. It also sports a shortcut key to take users straight to Google search from the idle screen. And it provides better Web page navigation with a zoom Web shortcut key or by tilting the device to automatically switch to landscape view.

Rumors have also been flying that Sony Ericsson will introduce the Xperia Windows Mobile phone. The company announced the handset in February at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. It said during the announcement that the phone would likely hit the market in September of this year.

Besides the various keynotes and announcements, CTIA is also running a series of panels and discussions. On Thursday, there will be a look to the future, as CTIA hosts a panel discussing "What Teens Want." The session, moderated by Tripp Hawkins, CEO and founder of Digital Chocolate, will feature results from a national survey of thousands of American teenagers and a live focus group of 13- to 19-year-olds who will discuss their attitudes, preferences, and behaviors, when it comes to how they use wireless technology.

So stay tuned as my colleagues, Kent German, Bonnie Cha, Nicole Lee, Tom Krazit, and I report on all that's happening this week in San Francisco.