Calling All Carriers: Mobile Software Startups Question Relevance of CTIA Wireless Expo

The mobile technology extravaganza known as the International CTIA Wireless Conference starts today in Las Vegas. Many thousands will attend. Keynotes will be given by such luminaries as Dan Hesse, the CEO of Sprint Nextel; John Stanton of Western Wireless and McCaw Cellular fame (also former CEO of T-Mobile USA); Randall Stephenson, the CEO of AT&T; and William Morrow, the CEO of Clearwire. Hollywood director James Cameron will join Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter, and Aneesh Chopra, the chief technology officer of the U.S. government, for a keynote panel discussion.

It’s clearly a Big Deal. CTIA (formerly the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association) is the main trade association for wireless operators. Its semi-annual meetings are where mobile software companies and wireless carriers gather to show off their latest wares. They are where key customer relationships get built, where deals get worked on, and where mobile startups and developers have needed to show up to have a chance at cracking a most difficult marketplace.

But not anymore. Around Seattle at least—the birthplace of McCaw Cellular, the first nationwide cellular network, and a longtime hive of wireless and mobile activity—I’m hearing that CTIA is no longer the see-and-be-seen place for mobile software startups and developers. In fact, many mobile software insiders are skipping the event this year. It’s a trend that undoubtedly stretches beyond the Northwest, and it can be traced largely to the rise of Apple’s iPhone app store and open platforms like Google Android.

If you’re a small startup, getting carriers to sell your software historically has been very difficult—and now it might be unnecessary, depending on your particular market. “There is no question that CTIA is far less relevant to mobile software and application startups than was the case even two or three years ago,” says Bill Bryant, a venture partner with Draper Fisher Jurvetson and the co-founder of Qpass, Medio Systems, and a number of other tech companies. “For the first time, developers have true options to reach the mass market without ‘getting on deck.’” (That is, they can reach consumers more directly without having to be approved by carriers.) With less need for mobile-app developers to work with carriers, Bryant says, “CTIA is like COMDEX was: once important for distribution but now largely irrelevant. There are still some good parties, though.”

An anecdotal survey of mobile startups and developers finds several who used to go … Next Page »

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