While Samsung & Co. are away, the smaller OEMs will play

Phil Goldstein

LAS VEGAS--Absent from the CTIA Wireless 2013 conference here this week were the big, company-sponsored product unveilings or parties (or combination thereof) that used to dominate this show. In fact, many big-name companies, including Samsung Electronics, BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY), HTC, LG Electronics, Nokia (NYSE:NOK) and others did not send their mobile executives to the show.

This is partly a function of handset makers using their own company-specific events to announce flagship products, a process that seems to be accelerating, and also the diminished stature of the CTIA conference in general. However, a welcome byproduct of this dynamic is that smaller OEMs and lesser-known handset makers had a chance to tell their stories without the shadow of a Galaxy S4-type launch looming over them.

To give you a flavor of what I'm talking about, here are a few examples from this week:

  • Steve Cistulli, senior vice president of North America for TCL-owned Alcatel One Touch, said the company is trying to break into the U.S. market by transitioning from feature phones to smartphones. The company is working to undercut larger and more established rivals that have relied on large carrier subsidies to get mass market appeal. Cistulli said that the vender wants to break the "subsidy bubble" with devices that offer specs above the entry-to-mid-tier smartphone segment but at half the cost of an iPhone. "What we anticipate, and what I've seen, is that all carriers want to be able to provide this choice to the end users," he said. "As we begin the sell-in and sell-through process of the cycle, I think you'll see other carriers offer up a better value for their user."
  • Kyocera may not be a major player in the U.S. market, but the company is hoping that its technology prowess, hone in Japan, will give it an edge. The company is doubling down on its waterproof Hydro phone (which, according to ITG Majestics, has been among the top 10 U.S. smartphones since it was introduced in August 2012) by introducing two new Hydro-branded phones, the Hydro Edge for Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) and its Boost Mobile brand and the Hydro XTRM for U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM). In addition to the waterproofing, Kyocera phones sport its "Smart Sonic Receiver" technology, which uses a ceramic transducer that transmits sound through tissue into a person's eardrum, eliminating the need for a traditional speaker. The upshot is that you can place any part of the phone front against your ear to hear. Kyocera indicated that it will be working with more CDMA carriers and also targeting LTE.
  • Another interesting company is Infosonics, which sells phones under the "verykool" brand. The company primarily focuses on entry-level Android phones in emerging markets but is keen to break into the U.S. sector through Tier 2 and Tier 3 operators as well as MVNOs. The company also focuses on creating ruggedized devices with slim form factors. The company shipped 1.6 million phones in 2012 and aims to hit 2 million this year, CEO Joseph Ram told me. "We can bring relatively high-end product market at an accessible price to the consumer," he said, noting the company is targeting the $170 to $250 unsubsidized price.
  • Even though it has a global presence, Nokia is still a relative lightweight in the U.S. market, having shipped 400,000 units in North America the first quarter, down from both the fourth quarter and the year-ago period. However, things may be starting to turn around, as the company now has new flagship products with Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) in the Lumia 928 and Lumia 925, respectively. (It should be noted that these devices were announced ahead of CTIA, which I think was a mistake; Nokia could have dominated CTIA with these announcements.) I was pleasantly surprised and excited to see that Nokia, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and their carrier partners are finally getting their marketing messages in synch around the Lumia brand. Hopefully for all involved, but especially Nokia, this will translate into more robust sales and momentum for Windows Phone in general.
  • There are others that were at CTIA trying to make a splash, including China's Coolpad and Caterpillar, which struck a partnership with Bullitt Mobile to make a rugged Android phone under the Cat brand.

None of these companies will likely sell tens of millions of units in the United States this year. But all of them are doing innovative work that will hopefully catch the attention of carriers and consumers. At a show in which they had the spotlight to themselves, they have tried to make the most of it. --Phil

P.S. Visit CTIALive for complete CTIA Wireless 2013 coverage.