CTIA: Can You Hear Me Now?

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Last week I attended the CTIA Wireless I.T. and Entertainment 2003 conference in Las Vegas. Billed as the World’s Largest Mobile Data Event, CTIA is proof that the era of convergent devices is upon us. While other conferences and trade shows, including Comdex and PC Expo, have suffered in the wake of 9/11 and the stalled U.S. economy, CTIA drew a respectable crowd to its sessions and exhibits.

However, one of the ironies of recent telecommunication events such as CTIA is the inevitable problems with on-site wireless networks. While all of the major carriers, from Sprint to Verizon, were at the show, attendees still complained that they often couldn’t obtain a signal, or their calls were dropped mid-sentence. AT&T Wireless, one of the show’s sponsors, attempted to address the issue by setting up a portable mobile cell tower in the Venetian Hotel, where the event was held. Still, move one step in the “wrong” direction and AT&T Wireless was no where to be found. In fact, I had more “no carrier” messages while at the show than I’ve had all year. So, despite the claims by carriers that they’ve pretty much licked the coverage problem, “Can you hear me now?” will likely remain part of our lexicon for the foreseeable future.

While the event’s Wi-Fi network was much better, there was absolutely no 802.11b access in the press room. I was told it was because it would “create havoc” with the hotel. Really? Havoc, you say? So I was relegated to the lobby of the convention center, along with dozens of other journalists and attendees sitting around on the floor, like some strange breed of new age cyber squatters — in the most literal sense.

Show me the devices

As far as devices, CTIA had them. You can read spec sheets all you want but there’s nothing like getting your hands on a device to truly see what it’s all about. That’s what makes the more than four hour trip across country to Las Vegas worthwhile. In just a couple of days you can feel and try out some of the latest devices on the market…and some not yet available.

The two most interesting upcoming devices were the Voq, from Sierra Wireless, and the Power Handheld Reference Design, from bSquare.

Sierra Wireless’s Voq

The Voq drew plenty of interested conference goers to the Sierra Wireless booth. The yet-to-be-released Voq Smartphone is powered by a 200 MHz Intel PXA262 XScale processor, includes 32MB of RAM, of which 16MB will be available to the user to run applications, and has 48MB of Flash memory, of which 20 MB available to store data and software. Like all handsets running the Windows Mobile operating system, the Voq has a 220 by 176 pixel screen and a joystick for user input, rather than a touch screen. It also has an SD/MMC slot for removable memory cards.

So what’s it like hands-on? Well, I wish I could tell you. However, the folks from Sierra Wireless had only a few working prototypes and wouldn’t let anyone touch them (although they’d provide brief demonstrations). Instead, you could fondle the dummy devices (same outside but nothing inside) to your hearts content. So, we’ll have to reserve judgement on this one.

bSquare’s Power Handheld Reference Design

The Power Handheld Reference Design from bSquare is billed as the “smallest handheld form factor with true web experience.” That’s supposedly means that you get a full VGA screen and a keyboard (a very slick retractable one), and everything runs just like it would on your desktop computer — thanks to Windows CE .NET. It’s powered by an Intel XScale PXA250 processor running at 400 megahertz and comes with integrated GSM/GPRS. Spec-wise, it seems to have everything you’re looking for.

So what’s it like hands-on? Well it’s surprisingly comfortable and easy to use. The screen is bright, crisp and easy to read, which is where most small VGA displays fail. And the retractable keyboard works well with two thumbs and is well balanced when extended. I was told to expect availability in the United States in early 2004. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised and can’t wait to try one out.

iPAQs, Accessories and the N-Gage

The new 4000 series iPAQs were there, and let me tell you that HP continues to develop one of the most impressive handheld product families in the industry. The 4150 (which I’m working on a review of for later this week) is a wireless PDA that combines the performance of a top-of-the-line handheld with eye-catching styling. The 4350 adds a built-in thumb keyboard to the mix — a first for the iPAQ line — and it seemed responsive and well balanced in my limited testing of it.

On the accessory side, Infinite Peripherals showed off its lineup of thermal printers for handhelds and smart phones. Designed mainly for printing receipts, these printers are wireless (powered by rechargeable batteries) and lightweight (typically under a pound). And some models come with an integrated magnetic stripe reader too.

Also, Otter Box had its latest ruggedized cases on display. I’ve used these extensively over the years and they live up to all of their hype. They’re tough, durable and waterproof. I wouldn’t take my PDA out in Tampa Bay without one!

I did manage to meet with some folks from Symbian and got an excellent overview of its philosophy and strategy, as well as peeks of upcoming devices. They seem to have a solid grasp on what they’re doing and remind me of the phrase “Under promise and over deliver.” Based on what I’ve seen, Symbian powered devices should begin to make inroads in the U.S. market in the near future.

One recent device that’s received a lot of press lately (both positive and negative) is the N-Gage. Symbian told me that 400,000 N-Gages have been shipped to distribution channels, but word is that they’re selling slowly. While I’ve yet to have any extensive hands-on time with the device and can’t really comment on its capabilities, I admire Nokia’s effort to push the envelope, introducing new sorts of devices for unique demographics.

Final thoughts

Which brings me to what CTIA was all about: convergence and devices.

Convergence is suddenly all around us, and it’s here to stay. Cell phones now take pictures and play music. PDAs let you make phone calls and plot your location on the planet. MP3 players even keep track of your schedule and your friends’ addresses. So, while each device will continue to have its basic primary function, it will also have other capabilities — sort of like options you add to a car or truck or SUV.

What this means is that rather than a single uber device to fulfill the wants and needs of millions of consumers, we’ll experience an exponential growth in the number of unique types of devices. After all, there are subtle differences in who we are and what we want, and this translates into the need for variety when it comes to devices. As PalmSource’s Michael Mace has long said, “One size fits one.”

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