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Whistling Dixie as you dial

Wireless executives gather in New Orleans for their largest trade show of the year, trying to find their way out of a two-year growth slowdown that's put them in a critical corner.

Cell phone companies gathering at the industry's largest trade show this week are expected to place new bets on business-focused phone services, better handsets and Wi-Fi wireless networking.

"It's time for the cell phone industry to get the piper paid," said PalmSource Chief Executive David Nagel, whose company intends to announce a new wireless-synching feature for devices that use the Palm operating system.

The unveiling of new products will begin Monday morning at the CTIA Wireless 2003 conference in New Orleans.

Intel President Paul Otellini is scheduled to show off the Samsung SGH-600 during his keynote address. The SGH-600 is the first Samsung phone to use Intel's XScale chips. Samsung is the chipmaker's biggest cell phone manufacturer partner to date.

Rival handset maker Nokia is set to beef up its line of North American phones with five new offerings. All of the phones will use a version of Qualcomm's CDMA (code division multiple access) technology, making Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS likely candidates to sell them.

Announcements are also expected from wireless carriers, which are angling for business customers.

The largest U.S. carrier, Verizon Wireless, plans to unveil a major new strategy to sell voice and wireless data plans to business clients. The company already has some services tailored to this group, such as "all you can eat" access to its new high-speed Web services for $99 a month.

A Sprint PCS representative said the wireless company intends to unveil a new service that lets machines talk to each other. So-called machine-to-machine (M2M) product lines combine software and hardware to give devices the ability to automatically send alerts to a computer network or to an information technology manager's cell phone.

AT&T Wireless plans to unwrap new phones and international dialing services, according to spokesman Ritch Blasi, in a bid to better meet one of the major needs of traveling professionals.

Sun Microsystems, meanwhile, is expected to announce that it's teaming up with Nortel Networks, a maker of equipment for telephone networks, to sell gear designed to help businesses track the location of employees or product shipments using wireless devices, said Bill Gough, a marketing manager at Sun.

In addition, the company and Lucent Technologies will show off a line of wireless message products aimed at businesses, Gough said.

A year of lowered expectations
It's a much humbler bunch congregating for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) conference than in years past. Many wireless executives say a brutal price war over cellular calling plans shows no sign of ending. It has already dramatically eroded carrier revenue, and the financial strain is starting to show.

The nation's top five wireless carriers are also straining financially, the result of a slowdown in cell phone sales and the $15 billion they spent collectively to build new cell phone networks in order to keep up with skyrocketing demand in the late 1990s.

"This is unlike the heyday of a couple of years ago, when we'd be walking around talking about intelligent PDAs (personal digital assistants) that brush your teeth," said Sun's Gough. "The mobile guys have to find a way to get back."

Companies announcing new services, phones and other products this week are expected to put emphasis on wireless networking using Wi-Fi, which is being eagerly welcomed by a cash-starved industry. After all, Wi-Fi's golden touch has been one of the only bright spots in a rather dismal few years for the IT market.

But a new overall emphasis on business services is being met with some reservations, chief among them the precipitous drop in corporate spending on new gear for computer and phone networks. "Enterprise spending has depressed. And it hasn't left that depression yet," Gough said.

Handset makers must also come up with easier-to-use products, said Tom Wheeler, president of the CTIA, which is the telephone industry's leading lobby group. Hard-to-use devices are holding back many business people from using the more expensive and complex wireless data services that carriers intend to augment this week.

"Enterprise devices are not as user friendly," Wheeler said. "Now the challenge is for enterprise devices to catch up."

Wi-Fi and cellular gumbo
The growing influence of Wi-Fi, the inexpensive high-speed wireless networking technology that's now in millions of homes and offices, will be evident this week.

Handset makers already produce cell phones and laptop cards capable of using both Wi-Fi and cellular networks. But just where else Wi-Fi fits will be among the issues debated at the conference.

Most in the industry say the two wireless technologies are complementary. Carrier T-Mobile, for instance, plans to outfit major urban centers with high-speed cellular equipment and with Wi-Fi networks.

There will also be several major efforts at the CTIA show this week to merge the two networks. For instance, Lucent is expected to announce a major new initiative to provide telephone network equipment with secure Wi-Fi connections.

Other Wi-Fi announcements will come from companies such as Cometa Networks, a partnership of Intel, IBM and AT&T that's trying to build a nationwide Wi-Fi network. Rod Adkins, an IBM general manager, said more than 1,000 truck stops will be outfitted with connections to Wi-Fi networks in the next few months.

Parade of products
It won't be all business at the CTIA show. The flash of newer, glitzier cell phones and services will be on parade, as well.

A source at PalmSource said the company will unveil software that allows people with devices using Palm's operating system to synchronize information wirelessly. Palm's software arm is also set to announce that it's teaming with Qualcomm to make the Palm operating system available to users of Qualcomm's BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) download software.

Also, most carriers will be unveiling new games for phones, such as Moviso's digital version of Etch A Sketch.