The last CTIA Wireless conference in its current form allegedly took place in Las Vegas last week. I say “allegedly” because even those in Vegas had no idea it was happening. The big players in the technology industry stayed away from Nevada having pretty much told their story at SXSW and CES. What was left was a fascinating exercise in the smaller mobile and tech brands trying to push themselves into the shop window for a takeover by making themselves as pretty, but unthreatening, as possible.
It has long become apparent that the gap between the have and have-nots in the tech industry is increasing. CTIA 2013 showed no evidence that there are any companies out there that are currently capable of challenging them and playing a meaningful role in the future behavior of the US consumer. This is not to say there weren’t some interesting plays out there.
Box touted its platform as enabling “simple, secure collaboration on any device” with a particular focus on small business, an audience that many large tech players are struggling with. Payvia offered an intriguing Carrier Billing Mobile Payment system and Sonostar previewed its “pearl-like” “Simply Smart” smart watch, but the overriding feeling among attendees was that the biggest gap between large and small tech players is the development horizon that they are able to focus on. Small technology firms, which need to sell today, are creating products with no real future vision on display and no sense that they can help define the future of wireless technology. They may make the cases, screen cleaner and carrying case, but that’s about it.
I left CTIA with an overwhelming sense of what these companies weren’t focusing on. Authentication technology, big data and analytics for small business and voice/speech technology are all rich areas for exploration, and all were significant by their absence. There was also a complete and total absence of the consumer in any of the tech products on display. There was an overwhelming obsession with Machine 2 Machine (M2M) that seemed to operate in a world where people no longer exist. A terrifying prospect for us all.
The biggest announcement was by Verizon, which brought along—drum roll, please—Jennifer Lopez to unveil Viva Movil, a new brand designed in partnership with JLo to transform the wireless experience for the Latino consumer. The announcement generated fairly limited buzz in the press but in the context of the show overall, it was the big news.
The best exhibit was a simulator for It Can Wait, AT&T’s pro-social platform that aims to educate teens to not text and drive. Drivers got behind the wheel of a real sedan and attempted to text while driving a simulated course. Suffice to say I will not be texting and driving after that experience. They are encouraging young people to take the pledge not to text and drive.
Beyond the wireless network carriers, four companies are best-positioned to tackle the future and define where the world is going: Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook. Sadly, none of them exhibit at Vegas in either January for CES or May for CTIA, even though both shows have such a profound effect on what everyone else is doing that the smallest whisper of Facebook’s Social Graph or Google Wi-Fi in New York can send the rest of the world into the deepest throes of Monster-induced development frenzy.
Perhaps it will all change next year, when the CTIA’a annual mobile showcase will relaunch as Super Mobility Week with high hopes that moving to September will attract bigger announcements and more buzz. One can only hope—its final conference felt a little like the last person dancing at the party while the hosts clean up around them.
Hugh Tallents is a Senior Director in Interbrand New York’s Strategy Group