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Why CTIA may mark one conference too many

commentary A particularly slow show highlights the need for the consolidation of the two CTIA Wireless conferences to later in the year.

Even the heavily hyped CEO roundtable keynote, a highlight of last year's show, felt canned and disappointing.
Lynn La/CNET

NEW ORLEANS--This hasn't exactly been a CTIA Wireless show to remember.

The conference was a virtual snooze fest this year, with the lack of product news and the disappearance of a few key players on the show floor leaving many questioning the relevancy of the show.

Are this week's show, as well as the second enterprise and application-focused CTIA conference in the fall, worth the time and effort? I'm starting to have my doubts, and I'm not alone. Industry executives have privately expressed to me hope that the trade group consolidates the two conferences and move the unified event back to the latter half of the year.

"It makes perfect sense," said one-high level wireless executive, who didn't wish to publicly criticize the trade group, but couldn't help but to notice the slow nature of the show.

Year after year, CTIA has it tough. It's in the unfortunate position of being the third major technology conference of the year, running behind the larger Consumer Electronics Show and Mobile World Congress events.

By the time CTIA comes around, the fatigue can be felt everywhere, from the reporters and analyst covering the event, to the companies obligated to put out another wave of announcements. It's become tougher in recent years as CES has become more of a destination for wireless companies and carriers. Verizon Wireless, for instance, chose to launch its 4G network more than a year ago at CES, rather than CTIA. Sprint Nextel, which usually has a large presence at the show, opted for meetings offsite.

The CTIA trade group tried to ameliorate some of the burnout by moving the show back by two months. Rob Mesirow, vice president and show director for the CTIA, said the change has resulted in some improvement.

Others, however, would disagree. "Mobile World Congress felt like it was just a few weeks ago," said another industry executive.

The lack of news and energy was among the more frequently discussed topics at the show. Samsung Electronics, which last year had one of the largest booths at CTIA, chose to skip the event altogether, instead hosting private meetings at a nearby hotel. Nokia also opted to forego the booth, instead scheduling a few closed-door meetings. It isn't a surprise that both had large presences at CES and Mobile World Congress.

Samsung chose to hold its own event just a week before to launch its Galaxy S III smartphone, which is its flagship device.

A lot of other top executives from other companies, meanwhile, chose to skip the conference, with a few popping in for quick industry meetings.

The phone announcements that were made seemed more out of obligation than the need to promote anything groundbreaking. Devices included a low-end Samsung Windows Phone for AT&T, as well as a renamed Evo 3D, now known as Evo V 4G, that Sprint Nextel has re-purposed for Virgin Mobile. In other words, no one was blown away by what got announced at the show.

Mesirow, however, downplayed the decreased role of devices at the show. He said CTIA was in the transition phase between hardware and software, and services such as cloud, security, and storage would play a more prominent role.

Indeed, while well-known telecom players were off the show floor, there was a large presence from the likes of Oracle, Intel, and MasterCard, who are all trying to make big moves into mobile. The show is often able to nab big-name speakers, including this year's keynote presentation by President Bill Clinton.

CTIA is also important for retailers who come to the show to examine the wares for the year, Mesirow said. He noted that many of the smaller vendors that come to the show still find it a valuable tool to reach out to others in the industry and potential customers.

"For a majority of our customers, it's the biggest show of the year," he said, adding that the attendance early on was trending higher than expected, despite the seemingly light foot traffic at the event.

Still, I floated the idea of the single show to him (which was clearly not the first time he had heard the suggestion), and he was open to it. The CTIA will consult with its key members in June, where it may consider integrating the two shows.

"We'll analyze the marketplace, and make a thoughtful decision," he said. "We're very open-minded on what we should be doing."

With a majority of the show floor space already sold out for next year's conference, CTIA as it is will almost assuredly go. But if the conversations I've been having all week are any indication, I'm expecting to see a lot of calls for change.

The sooner, the better. The shrimp po'boys here are great, but they aren't worth the trek to a lackluster conference.