Cellular's brave "meh" world: CTIA 2008 predictions

As we quick approach zero hour for CTIA this year, let’s look at what we can expect from the big boys in the months to come. This week’s trade show, CTIA Wireless, is the “business” head of the CTIA hydra and where most of the big handset announcements for U.S. carriers happen. Notice I italicized U.S. Because of our backward and Soviet-style carrier system here in the U.S., we very rarely get cool phones. This is why, on the hole, every phone we have here pales in absolute comparison to even a nicely outfitted Nokia N95, let alone the iPhone.

That said, don’t expect any crazy NTT DoCoMo phones with a built-in robot dog. Instead, set your sights on something like a pink RAZR with a special Gwen Stefani charm hanging from it and you won’t be disappointed.

Here’s what else to expect from this show of shows.

No 3G iPhone
Steve wouldn’t blow his wad on this. I doubt he’s been to Las Vegas in the past twenty years. It ruins his chi.

Phones like work and look like the iPhone but, are in some ways, better
The iPhone has taken up so much mindshare in the mobile phone buyer’s market that even my sainted mother wants one, and that woman can barely work the Nokia 5300 I gave her. The iPhone does lots of things well and, as is the carrier’s wont, manufacturers are copying those things either in spirit or wholesale to get at that tricky “I don’t want a shitty phone anymore” demographic.

Expect manufacturers to create phones that work much like the iPhone while leveraging things like GPS and 3G networks. The sooner these phones hit the streets the sooner everyone else can beat AT&T to a pulp after they loose iPhone exclusivity. Look for touch screens that don’t suck, scrolling UIs, cool picture browsers, and seamless web integration. Don’t look for anything like Apple’s savvy marketing prowess. This is improved hardware, not an improved mindset.

Business users who are in Sprint’s test markets and, slowly, the rest of the continental U.S. will soon get broadband speed wireless on their PCs. Do not expect WiMAX in handsets anytime soon although we do suspect there might be a wee WiMAX tablet in the pipe. Also be ready to have to explain “WiMAX” to your IT department and the guy at the Sprint store because this technology has landed so quickly that I doubt either party is quite up to speed.

Repeaters and femtocells will enable a new era of carriers making money at your expense
Making a wireless network is hard! You have to invest in towers and in computers and in wire. It’s just soooooo difficult to get coverage to those poor Americans in rural or urban areas. What is a carrier to do? Offload the burden to the consumer and piggy-back on their Internet connections and electricity bills to allow them the pleasure of making calls.

While my assessment of this is fairly cynical, I’m sad to report that this is just about the situation. Because of the high cost of building out network coverage, many carriers are using UMA or mini-repeaters to boost or carry calls from closed areas to the network at large. While this is a boon for some in underserved areas, it makes for a Band-Aid when offered up to unhappy customers who complain of dead spots. Carriers are simply riding on the consumer’s own network and electricity bill to supply them with service that that selfsame consumer is paying for. It would be like the cable company asking you to film some episodes of Grey’s Anatomy in your basement, at your own expense. I mean I’d love to see McDreamy near my water heater if only to smack him for screwing over Meredith so many times, but how am I expected to pay for catering for an entire film crew?

Of course if you pay for the repeater by yourself and install it without the carriers’ permission, that’s a crime, right? Right.

Android lives… next year

Say what you want about “emulators” and “small Chinese men in slacks,” but Android isn’t ready for prime time. You’ll see a few promising prototypes this year but you don’t embed and sell a phone with an untested operating system until you get a bunch of monkeys, stick their heads through some holes in a board, and make them stare at the screen for six months. FCC testing is a bear and Android is barely ready to have my CompSci professor in college play with it let alone my grandma.

More of more of the same
I’m not very bullish on the future of handsets in the US. I’ve seen too many cool phones come and go to think that Verizon or Sprint or T-Mobile or AT&T are going to try anything new and amazing this year or, dare I say it, any other year. Instead, look for more of the same: wonky UIs, half-assed design, and draconian lock-in requirements. However, look for incremental improvements in network speed, more business-oriented mobile services including built-in WiMAX and WWAN in laptops, and a general trend towards more data services.

Also, ignore all “open networks” lip-service. These are lies carriers tell you to make you equate them with Google and Android. Oh, and also look for Peter Ha to gamble all night and to accidentally spend the night with a 65-year-old hooker. After all, this is Las Vegas.