I had the honor to speak on a couple of panels at CTIA and also spent some time browsing the show floor. Here’s a rundown of some trends and products that caught my eye.
3G is the tip of the iceberg. 4G, WiMax, LTE – whatever you call it, it’s much faster than current 3G speeds. And that changes the game for the mobile Web. It is as significant a leap as dial-up to broadband for PC Web access. Sprint, which already has coverage in select cities across the country, launched the first 4G phone during CTIA. Verizon plans a significant roll out starting later this year. Faster access means more video, less waiting time, and more practical applications. This, combined with smartphone growth, will drive mobile Web usage through the roof.
Watch Your Back, Apple
Android and Windows Phone 7 Series were everywhere, and it was very different from the onslaught of lame touch-screen phones at CES in 2009. Many devices at CTIA were – quite simply – stunning. The hardware is gorgeous (if a bit reminiscent of the iPhone). Both Android 2.0 and Windows Phone 7 Series have slick user interfaces (UI) that are graphically rich and intuitive. Screens are responsive, stuff loads quickly, etc. I was especially impressed by HTC and Samsung, who’ve both created their own UI frameworks on top of the Android operating system. Both have super-sexy hardware to match. All of this together means we finally have some legitimate competition for the iPhone.
Samsung also had alternative keyboard Swype on demo. It’s an amazing replacement for the standard Android virtual keyboard. Looks pretty much the same, but rather than typing individual letters one at a time, you put your finger down, and keep it down as you move from letter to letter – “swyping” your way across the keyboard. When you pick up your finger, the predictive algorithm determines what word you were after. If it can’t figure it out, it presents you with multiple choices. It sounds awkward, but I spent a couple of minutes playing with it, and it significantly increases your typing speed with a virtual keyboard. It was absolutely flawless during the few minutes I spent with it. The app is baked into the latest Samsung hardware, but (once it gets out of private beta) it will be available for other manufacturers via the Android Marketplace as well.
Competition will be good for the mobile ecosystem in the long run, providing more choice, better options, pushing constant innovation, and driving prices down. In the near term, however, it may mean increased fragmentation for marketers, which leads me to my next point…
Apps to Infinity (and Beyond)
CTIA 2010 was all about the app. I wasn’t at the show last year, and didn’t go to Mobile World Congress, so this could be a continuation of trends from previous shows, but the pervasiveness of applications here was overwhelming. You could hardly turn around without running into a new app store.
Witness the BlackBerry booth. The majority of the floor space was dedicated to small pods that overviewed individual apps rather than hardware or RIM-driven software innovations.
Similarly, Samsung continued its pursuit of application hype by showing up with two booths: one centered around its hardware, and a second booth geared more toward developers, located inside CTIA’s Apps World Zone that focused on its Bada application platform.
It remains to be seen how many different application platforms the market can support. Every OEM is racing to replicate the success of the iTunes App store, but at some point it’s going to do little more than add to an already fragmented and challenging ecosystem. With desktops, app developers have to worry about two platforms: Mac and Windows. With the desktop Web, it’s a bit more complicated with IE, Safari, Firefox, and Chrome. The mobile Web is even more complicated with so many different operating systems, screen sizes, browsers, etc. And now the application landscape seems to be adding complexity rather than making it simple. For now, it’s a two-horse race between iPhone and Android, but what happens if/when other app stores/platforms from the likes of Windows Phone, BlackBerry, Samsung, and more begin to gain traction? Over time, the industry will have to drive toward standardization around a smaller set of platforms. Ultimately, it begs the question of apps versus browser-based functionality. Already, most smartphones (regardless of OS) are supporting WebKit-based browsers. And if you look at the trajectory of desktop computing, it all started as app-based (and later widget-based), but is moving quickly toward cloud-based applications accessed via browser. There’s no reason to believe that mobile won’t eventually follow the same path.
There were many booths focused around using technology smartly while driving. LG dedicated a section of its booth to a game-like demonstration of the risks of texting-while driving. Great to see a leading manufacturer building awareness of this issue, and it begs reconsideration of all of those highway billboards with SMS calls to action, no?
FloTV made a good showing at CES this year, and I’ve been simultaneously skeptical and fascinated by the idea of this apparent return to linear broadcast as the rest of the world moves to on-demand video. There’s a clear attraction for sports and other live events. And it’s not hard to imagine that certain kinds of social media could spark a return to appointment viewing – so if I squint, I can see the appeal from a consumer perspective. Still, assuming there is a market for live, linear mobile TV, I’m not sure a dedicated device will be the way to go. It’s got to be baked in to an existing device, and FloTV is already embedded in several devices from AT&T and Verizon.
I also ran across Mophie, which is launching an iPhone case/battery extender/FloTV adapter called juice pack TV. I remain somewhat skeptical, but it’s an interesting prospect.
Mophie is also introducing a mobile payment solution that adds a magnetic strip reader to iPhone 3G and 3GS. There were several other mobile payment solutions on display from other vendors, including an NFC-driven solution. I saw this on demo at CES in 2007 and was blown away, but it remains to be seen how quickly (or if at all) OEMs and carriers begin to enable NFC commerce.
Regardless of the technology that drives it, there is little doubt that mobile payment will be huge. There’s a ton of movement in this space, ranging from startups like Billing Revolution to PayPal, rumors of Apple’s pending platform, Amazon, Jack Dorsey’s (Twitter co-founder) Square, and so on.
This revolution is just beginning, but it will bring a ton of opportunity for brands and retailers.