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On Call: From CES to CTIA

As the trade shows season progresses, the news continues to be fast, but not so furious.

It's been two weeks since I returned from the GSMA World Congress, but memories of the event are still fresh in my mind. As the largest cell phone trade show in the world, GSMA had enough to keep Bonnie and I occupied. But like this year's CES, the show wasn't quite as insane as it was in 2009.

Though the exhibits were just as elaborate, and the show grounds were just as massive, both shows were quieter on a couple of levels. First off, there were noticeably fewer people in attendance. At CES, for example, it was possible to walk out of the Las Vegas Convention Center and get a taxi without waiting (a miracle, believe me). What's more, you could almost go bowling down some aisles on the convention floor and not have to worry about hitting any attendees.

At GSMA, the change was visible in more subtle ways. There were still plenty of people milling about the Fira de Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain, but lines at food stands were shorter, and you could get hotel rooms for a decent price just a couple of weeks before the show started. Last year, I tried to book five months before the show began and could not find an available hotel room.

But more importantly, there were simply less news to cover at both shows. Instead of unveiling a gallery of new phones, manufacturers introduced just a few. For instance, while at last year's GSMA, Sony Ericsson showed seven new products, it just introduced two in 2009. Samsung offered us a bit more this year with four new handsets, but in 2008, the company unveiled more than 10 shiny models. Even Nokia had the same story--three new handsets last year compared with two new phones this year. And while Motorola offered the Tundra VA76r, Renew W233, and Surf A3100 in Las Vegas, the company barely showed up in Barcelona. Strange times indeed.

The economy, of course, is big factor behind the changes. But I have to wonder again if trade shows are fundamentally changing. Instead of using them as platforms to launch new products, companies are instead just showing up to make connections, drum up new business, and show their existing wares. Over the last few years, I've watched the number of new products at CES, GSMA, and CTIA drop slowly but steadily. We still end up writing just as much copy, but single products, rather than a family of products, are starting to dominate the events. The 2009 CES, of course, saw the unveiling of the Palm Pre, and GSMA gave us the HTC Magic.

As we head back to Las Vegas for CTIA in three short weeks, I'm a bit apprehensive how it while play out. Sprint and Samsung managed to grab most of the 2008 CTIA headlines with the Instinct, so I'm wondering if we'll see a similar situation this year. Will companies continue to attend trade shows, but introduce new products on their own schedule? Or will they take the lead of Apple and Macworld and abandon them all together. I'm more inclined to go with the first scenario, but I don't think that the second option is all that unlikely.