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On Call: Lessons from CTIA

On Call looks back at the lessons learned from CTIA 2009.

Welcome to CTIA Kent German/CNET

The best place at any trade show is your departure gate at the airport. While events like CTIA certainly can be interesting, and even fun, they're also a lot of work. What's more, I don't enjoy being away from my family, my friends, and my own couch. Yet, even with those caveats I can always count on CTIA, CES, and the GSMA World Congress to teach me lessons about what's happening in the cell phone world. Even when the show is relatively quiet, as CES 2009 was, I wind up learning something.

Times are tough
Even before the CNET crew arrived in Las Vegas we knew that CTIA wouldn't be too lively. Such was the case at both CES and GSMA, so we couldn't imagine that CTIA would be different. As I said in my CTIA wrap-up, the economy is a likely factor, but CTIA also has the unfortunate position of following two events with worldwide profiles.

About as busy as it got Kent German/CNET

As expected, attendance was down by a noticeable amount. I don't have figures to back me up right now, but there were plenty of telling signs that fewer people made the trip to Vegas. For instance, I didn't have to wait in line to get lunch and at times you could go bowling down the convention floor aisles. More importantly, while horrendous taxi lines are very common at McCarran Airport, I waited only a few minutes. I seriously think that the length of the Vegas airport cab line should be a new economic indicator.

News at the show was also pretty light. In its usual fashion, Samsung made the strongest showing with LG and Kyocera following closely behind. Yet, the total numbers of new phones introduced was far smaller than in previous years, and we didn't hear any hot tidbits around high-profile items like the Palm Pre or the Google Android OS. Moto, Nokia, and HTC had just one major announcement each, and Sony Ericsson had none. Sony Ericsson even shared a booth with parent company Ericsson, a sure sign that it the company is laying low.

The Samsung Impression was a show highlight. Kent German/CNET

But not that tough
Then again, it's not a total wasteland out there as the feeling at the show was mostly upbeat. And I'm not talking about the "everything is great!" cheerleading that you hear in keynote speeches. Of the manufacturers and carriers that I spoke to, most admitted that times weren't great and their companies are suffering layoffs and reducing expectations. But even so, they are recognizing that the pace of development in the gadget world stops for no one. So while the new devices from CTIA may be not be flashy and glam--simple messaging phone predominated--they're still new devices. And some were worth a look.

Palm, you're no Apple
Talk to any tech journalist and he or she will tell you that Apple has the marketing and PR game mastered. All the company needs to do is tease us with the slightest bit of information about a new product like the iPhone, and we'll be champing at the bit. Even as Apple continues to withhold concrete information, often for months at a time, we'll continue to speculate, analyze, and wait with baited breath for the final product. It's not fair, it's not fun, and frankly, it's frustrating. But Apple gets away with it because it is Apple. No other company gets us so excited about finding facts in the absence of facts.

Look but don't touch! Kent German/CNET

Unfortunately, it appears that Palm is trying to play the same game. But it is not nearly as successful. When it first introduced the Pre at CES we weren't allowed to touch it and we had to do some serious wrangling to borrow it for a First Look video. Three months later at CTIA we figured we would get some hands-on time, particularly after Palm invited us to a "VIP lounge" where Pres would be available.

But as my colleague Bonnie Cha rightfully protested, Palm reps wouldn't let the devices out of their hands. The rep even had to be the one to turn the handset around so Bonnie could get a better photo. Ridiculous? Absolutely. And Bonnie was not alone in protesting. Vincent Nguyen over at Slashgear saw one analyst completely flip out and start screaming. An overreaction? Absolutely. But the response from Bonnie and others is telling. By stonewalling us with more specs, the release date, and pricing, and by not letting us even touch the Pre, Palm is not keeping us intrigued. It's just being irritating.

No news is not good news. CNET UK

What's up with Android?
CTIA was the third show in a row where our hopes for big Android news were dashed. The show brought us no new Android handsets for the U.S. market, even though we were betting that HTC would unveil a Magic for T-Mobile. It's now been six months since the G1 went on sale, and Android has nothing else to show for itself besides the HTC Magic for Vodafone. So what's going on? I wish I knew, as I worry that the Open Handset Alliance is just wasting time. As we approach the very real possibility of a new iPhone this summer, Android needs to throw us a bone.

Apps and more apps
Apps were also big news at CTIA , particularly with the announcement of the BlackBerry App World. I'd wager that this is one area where we'll see a lot of innovation over the next couple of years. Companies are recognizing that third-party services and more customization aren't going anywhere. So if they don't offer the resources to redesign the phone itself, they'll work with what is on the inside.