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Dropped call: Mobile biggies conspicuous by absence at CES

Many of the big names in wireless continue to shy away from the Consumer Electronics Show, or limit their presence. That leaves an opening for the second-tier players.

Escalator up to the South Hall entrance of the Las Vegas Convention Center at CES 2012. Sarah Tew/CNET

LAS VEGAS -- Mobile is supposed to be a hot category in tech, right? You'd never know it looking at the announcements that are slated to start pouring in this week.

Many of the major companies in the mobile industry have opted to skip or limit their presence at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, which kicks off tomorrow for the media before officially opening on Tuesday. The announcements that do come out will emerge from lower-tier companies hoping to make more of a name for themselves and their products.

The dearth of wireless-related news at a time when the tech world is going increasingly mobile underscores the dilemmas that a show like CES faces: too many competing conferences, more companies opting to hold their own events, and unfortunate timing after a large wave of product announcements ahead of the holidays. As a result, don't expect to have your mind blown with the mobile announcements coming out this week.

"There aren't really high expectations for lots of big news coming out from CES," said Daniel Hays, a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers. "CES is an increasingly crowded forum to get your message out. That probably causes some vendors to hold back in making major announcements."

Apple and Google, authors of the two largest mobile operating systems in the world, have long had minimal to zero presence at CES. Microsoft, which made its big push for Windows Phone 8 in October, held its last keynote address here a year ago. Research In Motion, the other significant mobile operating system, will formally unveil its next-generation BlackBerry 10 operating system at its own event later this month.

Samsung has long had one of the largest presences at CES, but it won't have much in terms of smartphone or tablet announcements, having already heavily invested in a campaign for its Galaxy Note 2 and the continued run of its Galaxy S III late last year. The company also pulled out of the CTIA Wireless show last year, opting instead to launch its flagship phone at its own event, much like Apple.

Other traditional mobile heavy hitters, including Google's Motorola Mobility, Nokia, and HTC, won't have much to say as well.

The carriers, which in recent years have stepped up their presence at CES, are expected to remain quiet this year. Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam has a keynote address scheduled for tomorrow, but the company isn't expected to make any major wireless announcements, a far cry from the splashy launch of its 4G LTE network two years ago. AT&T, which holds its own developer summit separately from CES but usually offers some mobile news, is likewise expected to remain mum.

T-Mobile USA will hold a press conference and likely talk about its network plans and pending deal with MetroPCS, although actual phone announcements could be slim. Sprint Nextel, still working through its own pending merger with SoftBank, doesn't have any formal event scheduled.

Mobile World Congress around the corner
Mobile World Congress, based in Barcelona, has always been a major force. And with everything going more mobile, the show has grown even more in prominence and influence over the years. The U.S. carriers, which traditionally opted to skip MWC, are increasingly taking part in that show.

Likewise, a lot of major smartphone and tablet announcements are getting made there, rather than at CES. Asus, for instance, cancelled its press conference at CES, opting to debut its mobile products at MWC in February instead.

While Google isn't so high on CES, it has had a large presence at MWC over the past few years, including large booths complete with a slide, an array of demonstration booths, and toy claw machine giving away stuffed Android dolls.

MWC's legacy in mobile gives it an advantage over CES, which has traditionally been about televisions, PCs, and other random gadgets. The transition has been bumpy.

"It's all about your audience. CES has historically drawn an audience primarily focused on retailers. Increasingly, that audience are not just at CES; they're at other influential shows like MWC," Hays said.

CES is making the shift. Mobile chipset companies, for instance, make up some of the early announcements for the show. Tonight, Nvidia will kick things off with its own press event, unveiling its newest Tegra processor.

Meanwhile, Paul Jacobs, CEO of mobile chipmaker Qualcomm, takes over tomorrow's end-of-day keynote slot long occupied by Microsoft and its CEO, Steve Ballmer, another illustration of the shift from PC to mobile.

Opportunities for the second-tier companies
With a Samsung or Motorola out of the picture, that gives companies eager for some attention a chance to shine.

Sony is one of the few companies expected to announce a smartphone or two, and details have already begun leaking out.

Huawei and ZTE, two Chinese vendors eager to stake a larger claim of the U.S. market, are also expected to unveil smartphones at CES. Both are known primarily for low- and mid-tier smartphones and tablets, but the companies want to change that.

ZTE is expected to unveil a high-end flagship smartphone, the Grand S, at CES. It's still unclear whether it will actually sell in the U.S. though.

ZTE could be making a big splash at CES this year. Josh Miller/CNET

Huawei, meanwhile, is expected to go big with the Ascend Mate, a large phone with a 6.1-inch display that falls into a category many call "phablet," most notably led by the Galaxy Note franchise by Samsung.

Whether these products ever end up in the consumers' hands is still up in the air. But with some of better-known companies opting to save their ammunition for later, the companies presenting now will at least get heard.

"CES is still an extremely powerful platform for announcing new products and positioning yourself as a leader in the mobile space," Hays said.