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How AT&T hopes to woo developers at CES

AT&T is holding its annual developer summit right next to the Consumer Electronics Show, which has seen tenfold growth in interest over the past four years.

Ralph de la Vega
The head of AT&T's mobility and consumer business, Ralph de la Vega, seen here at a wireless conference in 2010, will be among a packed lineup of speakers at AT&T's developers summit today. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

LAS VEGAS--While the Consumer Electronics Show is a must-see event for anyone in the technology business, AT&T has quietly made its developer summit, a stone's throw away from the actual show, a pretty important destination for itself.

While the company has long had a developer program, which previously focused on the enterprise market, it began holding an annual summit six years ago to further drum up developer interest just as the consumer app market was beginning to emerge.

Four years ago, when the summit was still in its infancy, 250 developers packed into a ballroom at the Venetian during the CTIA Wireless conference. Now at CES, the company expects 2,500 developers to show up this year, essentially taking over the Palms hotel.

Over the last few years, AT&T has shaped up the conference by adding top executives and making some major announcements at the event. Last year, AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega laid out the company's plan to accelerate its 4G LTE deployment, as well as rebrand its HSPA+ network 4G.

"Three years ago, we made a conscious effort to build a bigger summit," said Carlton Hill, vice president of consumer devices.

If you're going to build a bigger show, it doesn't hurt to place it adjacent to one of the largest tech conferences in the world.

This year's summit, which kicks off later today, is expected to bring more 4G LTE phones, including the high-end Nokia Lumia 900, as well as a number of Android handsets, as the company looks to provide a spark to its LTE ambitions.

By making the summit a spot for major announcements, the company is raising the profile of the event, drawing even more developers at a time when all of the carriers are trying to rally more to their side.

"We've had our program for a while," Hill said. "Some of our credibility comes from our longevity."

The announcements aren't all big picture, either, with news expected to cater specifically to developers.

Later today, AT&T will announce the launch of its YP Developer Program, which is designed to help developers take advantage of the company's digital yellow pages business. The program is separate from AT&T's core developer program. The program will help developers create apps that can access YP's 17 million local listings and 4,600 business categories.

"There's a lot going on, there's a lot of focus in one place," Hill told me.

AT&T will be focusing on getting developers to build apps that can run on its network more efficiently, an ongoing push for the company. Another major theme will be promoting HTML 5 as a standard to create apps. It's one of several companies actively pushing HTML 5, as highlighted in prior Inside Apps columns.

"I think it's going to grow really fast," Hill said, adding that all but its lowest end smartphones would be able to handle HTML 5.

AT&T has also expanded the number of sessions available to developers, with many them offering tutorials on technical details and a chance to play with the latest devices. The sessions also include AT&T's partners, including Qualcomm, Microsoft and other vendors.

"That's what our developers come to see," she said.

The event actually started unofficially yesterday with a hackathon, when developers quickly program new apps. It's one of my many such contests AT&T holds each year to promote apps.

Given its growth, AT&T may need to find a new home for its summit in the coming years.

"We'll max out our current venue," Hill said.