iPhone's long shadow over mobile

Several Ovum analysts spent time last week at the CTIA Wireless conference in Las Vegas. A massive show, rivaled only by the GSMA's big European event in size in the wireless industry, the event seems to have been eclipsed somewhat by its European counterpart as a forum for big announcements, with even some of the US carriers making a bigger splash in Barcelona than in Vegas. CTIA was rather short on big announcements as a result, although a few key themes still emerged from the event.

Firstly, it's been interesting to see the shadow the iPhone casts over everything even though Apple isn't visibly present at the show. Sprint's big announcement was around the Samsung Instinct, a clear iPhone competitor.

But the devices on display at Sprint's launch event were running beta software which was glitchy and slow, and it was clear that - although they have some nifty features - these devices are not a match for the iPhone. AT&T itself, which has exclusive rights to the iPhone in the US, had another device which mimics certain aspects of the iPhone - the LG Vu - but it is another poor match for the device on everyone's minds.

Of all the things that people love about the iPhone - the design, the UI, the browser, the ease of use - none of them were matched by most of the devices on display at CTIA, even though the manufacturers of those devices have been making phones for far longer than Apple. The Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 showed the most promise of any device I saw at CTIA, but it won't be launched for several months.

Mobility service launches

AT&T appears to be keen to cement the thought leadership the iPhone deal has given it. Its announcement that it will deploy Microsoft Surface tabletop computers in some of its stores will further up the cool factor for AT&T and put more pressure on its competitors to find ways to compete. I haven't seen much from AT&T's competitors that can match it in terms of providing differentiated experiences on devices or in stores.

I discussed managed mobility services with several players at CTIA, and found broad consensus in several areas. It seems clear that the next several months will see launches from major players including both AT&T and Verizon around managed mobility services, and that a range of factors are coming together to create a fertile environment for uptake of these services.

The greater complexity presented by the enterprise mobile environment to the IT manager is creating demand for these services. And technology is now available to enable the supply side, both from specialists like Mformation, Sybase and Nokia/Intellisync and from RIM and Microsoft. Launches in the next few months from those two big carriers and increasing uptake over the next year or two should follow.

"Openness" appears to be becoming the new "convergence" in that it is a term everyone seems to feel compelled to insert into every pitch and keynote despite the fact that it means different things to different people.

AT&T still appears frustrated that Verizon has got so much attention for playing catch-up with the GSM world: as Ralph De La Vega (head of AT&T Mobility) put it on Wednesday, "we were open before open was cool".

 

But he also suggested AT&T now views Android much more favorably than it did at first, ironically because Android will be "open" to AT&T's branding and applications in the device UI, rather than being restricted to just Google and open source software.

Implementation

Hopefully the "openness" hype will soon be replaced by the implementation of the kind of openness that consumers want. Android will be important to watch when it launches - Texas Instruments was demoing two Android devices at CTIA - but it can't be the only game in town.

Carriers need to get better at explaining that they already offer openness on the RIM, Windows Mobile and Palm platforms, where users get unfettered access to the internet and the ability to install their own applications.

But they also need to find ways to extend that openness all the way down the portfolio for those customers who want that. And they need to stop pretending that "choice" and openness are synonyms: just because you give your customers a choice between two hand-picked applications does not mean your approach is open. Allowing them to pick the application they want, regardless of whether you have endorsed it, is. And carriers still have some learning to do in this department.

Overall, the show is, as always, a nice snapshot of a point in time for the wireless industry. But by the time CTIA's next show rolls around later this year we'll hopefully have seen significant progress in all these areas - compelling devices, managed mobility and openness in particular.

Jan Dawson, VP, US Enterprise Practice

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