Snoozing my way through CES

Sure, there were exceptions. But overall CES 2012 was pretty dismal for anyone interested in wireless.

This year’s CES was pretty dismal for anyone interested in wireless. Sure, AT&T had some good stuff and the Microsoft launched the LTE Windows Phone 7. But other than that, most people would’ve been better off hitting the snooze button.

Last year, by contrast, AT&T and especially Verizon Wireless made a huge splash with 4G announcements. There was so much excitement that I thought it might upstage the CTIA Show in the spring, which could have faded into oblivion like so many other trade shows.

But this year’s CES made it clear that, for the wireless industry, CES is still optional and the CTIA Show remains the industry’s premier event. So, now that I’ve got you down about CES, let me tell you what I was able to get out of it. There were a couple of bright spots, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

AT&T came out swinging again with several big announcements. The company showed an impressive array of support for developers who want to take advantage of GPS, carrier billing integration, and AT&T’s U-Verse TV service. This kind of integration, while limited to AT&T, can lead to richer and more exciting applications. Check out Glympse to see what’s possible with GPS integration.

AT&T has done the best job of selling smartphones to existing customers, with a 99-cent iPhone 3GS and several other smartphone devices under $30, all requiring at least a $15 entry-level monthly data plan. AT&T’s announcements built on that strategy, with the launch of three “LTE for the masses” smartphones for less than $50 and the launch of two types of Windows Phone 7 with LTE, one from HTC (the Titan II), and the other from Nokia (the Lumia 900).

Peter Chou, CEO of HTC, gushed with praise for the Titan II, noting that it’s his personal device. Nokia CEO Steven Elop was a bit more coy about what his company was unveiling because he wanted people to show up for his own press conference later that afternoon.

The Lumia 900 is a gorgeous device, upping the ante on virtually everything the Lumia 800 delivered: a larger, more luminous screen and LTE. It’s well-known that Nokia has also a CDMA + LTE version in the works, which, if it launches with Verizon Wireless, would give it the necessary breadth of operators to make a significant impact in the market. The operators have a vested interest in having at least three competing operating systems. Negotiations are a lot easier when one party has more than two options. With RIM imploding, Windows Phones are in a prime position to take that third slot.

The lower-priced phones are a big deal because people with disposable income already have smartphones. Reaching the rest of the people is the trick. It comes down to cost. A $200 phone and an additional $30 every month for data is not at the top of the list for some people in this economy. But today’s smartphones are addictive. Before people try them, they wonder what they could possibly use them for. After carrying one for a week, they can’t live without one and often end up upgrading.

One more big deal: With a lot of fanfare, Samsung introduced the Galaxy Note–a hybrid smartphone/tablet. In all likelihood, this will fail. Just one look confirms why. It’s too big to be a phone and it’s too small to be a decent tablet. It doesn’t pass the pants-pocket test unless you wear cargo pants all the time, and it looks absurd next to somebody’s ear–like holding a personal pan pizza next to your head.

Other operator and device announcements were underwhelming to say the least. Verizon Wireless and Sprint made announcements that they could have made during any other average week of the year. T-Mobile USA’s “we are still alive” press conference at CES was cute, but not much more than that. T-Mobile’s suggestion that the next iPhone could work with its AWS spectrum also made some waves, but probably irked the secretive Apple more than it it wowed regular consumers.

A few miscellaneous thoughts.

I am very skeptical regarding the Intel/Motorola multi-year, multi-device announcement. This means we will get two Motorola devices in two years using Intel’s new chips. Why am I so pessimistic?

Historically speaking, Intel’s chipsets were a lot more power hungry than ARM-based chipsets, while the radio Intel bought from Infineon is substantially inferior to Qualcomm’s. Have you heard of significant complaints about dropped calls with the iPhone since Apple has switched from Infineon to Qualcomm? Neither have I.

At the spectrum and Federal Communications Commission panels, the focus was on the broadcaster incentive auctions. Almost everyone, including FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, thinks the auctions need to get done now. Only the broadcasters, which need to be convinced to give up the spectrum, do not see any urgency–the longer they wait to sell their spectrum, the more money they’ll get.

For the incentive auctions to go ahead, the House of Representatives and Senate first have to agree on the terms and conditions of the auction, which recent history shows is not likely. The auctions will put up for bid unused TV spectrum for wireless use. Republicans in the House want to limit the restrictions on the space, while Democrats in the Senate and the FCC want to be able to modify the rules on who can bid. One block of 700MHz spectrum in the 2009 auction had conditions put upon it, and never garnered enough interest by bidders, highlighting what happens when too many restrictions are in place.

So, it was a dull week with a few bright spots. I haven’t completely given up on CES, but am anxious to see what the Mobile World Congress next month and CTIA show in the spring have in store.