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CTIA 2005

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This year's CTIA was disappointing. Yes, there were a few neat new phones and demos, but it just didn't have the same energy as past years.

To be fair, last year's CTIA was pretty hard to beat. In Atlanta, we saw the country's first EV-DO phone, our first WCDMA/UMTS phone, the first CDMA+GSM phones, the first megapixel camera phones, and the first feature phones with memory card slots. Plus there was excitement about swivel-style phones, EDGE, video capture, CDMA phones with Bluetooth, and better displays.

This year's crop of new phones was far less ground-breaking. There were demos of HSDPA, but no official phone announcements. There were two new EV-DO phones with Bluetooth, megapixel cameras, and memory card slots, but they weren't the first. (The Motorola E815 announced at CES claims that title.) There was very little innovation in form factors.

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I was expecting more: more music, more megapixels, and more memory (hard drives, specifically). There was a little of each, just not as much as I expected.

On the music front, there was the Sony Ericsson Walkman phone, but they haven't announced a U.S. version yet. Same story for Samsung's SGH-i300. The LG VX-8100 is interesting, with its 512 MB of built-in memory, built-in stereo speakers, and dedicated media-control buttons on the front. Still, the much-hyped Motorola iTunes phone remains elusive, and I heard the same tune from everyone else - no real "music-first" phones just yet.

On the camera front, I was really expecting more 2-megapixel phones at the show. Samsung was showing off the A800 again, and introduced the impressive A970, but that was about it. As with the Walkman phone, Sony Ericsson's 2-megapixel K750i isn't for the U.S. yet, and there were no 2-megapixel models from LG, Motorola, or Nokia.

The only real camera-phone innovation was the 2x optical zoom on the Samsung A970. That is a first, and is a little exciting, but not completely unexpected.

As for memory, I really was expecting someone to announce a phone for the U.S. with a hard drive. I'm pretty disappointed that didn't happen. Samsung did tell me they're "considering" bringing a hard-drive phone to the U.S. later this year, but if it's three months into the year and they haven't made up their mind yet, I wouldn't bet on it.

There was plenty of other memory news, though. As expected, most new high-end phones now have a memory card slot. Some manufacturers are going with the miniSD format, while many others are choosing the newer and smaller TransFlash format. (Which is now being renamed microSD, but that's a rant for another day.)

Shifting to a broader theme, I was also disappointed with the relative lack of new GSM phones for the U.S. I guess it shouldn't have been a surprise. Within the last year, Cingular has absorbed AT&T Wireless, meaning there is now one less national GSM carrier. That means far fewer different GSM models for the U.S. Less handset competition among GSM carriers could also potentially mean less GSM handset innovation for the U.S. I guess I knew that would be one consequence of the merger, but it didn't really "click" until I came to CTIA and saw the relatively anemic lineups of new North American GSM phones from most of the major players.

In contrast, the advent of EV-DO technology seems to be sparking a new wave of high-tech phones for CDMA carriers. And with new MVNO carriers like SK-Earthlink and Amp'd focusing on EV-DO phones, we can expect even more diverse, innovative CDMA EV-DO phones in the future.

HSDPA is the one bright spot on the horizon for Cingular, and it was great to finally see the technology in action. But with EV-DO here already, it will be crucial for Cingular to bring HSDPA to market quickly and make it a reality. And regardless, it will be interesting to see how Cingular's HSDPA lineup will fare against the dizzying array of EV-DO phones that appear to be on the horizon for the four or more EV-DO carriers (including MVNOs) that should be up and running by the end of the year.

Near the end of the event, I asked several people what they thought was the most interesting thing on the show floor. More than one person said it was Samsung's digital fountain. These were hard-core industry people, mind you, and I'm not sure I disagree. Am I saying the show a bust? Certainly not. EV-DO is going strong, HSDPA is around the corner, and phones are getting better every day. But in the end, it's saying somethig that the most interesting new thing at CTIA might have been a fancy water fountain.

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