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

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to CTIA but are not attending this year. Take Zumobi. The mobile applications company, based in Seattle, changed its focus in the past couple of years from a widget-based cellphone platform to smartphone apps for things like social networking, communication, and weather reports. The company has formed partnerships with major brands like The Today Show, TLC, MSNBC, Sporting News, and REI, and has focused on mobile platforms like the iPhone and Palm.

Instead of selling its software through wireless operators, Zumobi now depends more on advertising for its revenue. “I never would have thought that two years ago. I thought their path to market was through the carriers,” says Tom Huseby, a noted venture capitalist, mobile guru, and chairman of Zumobi’s board of directors. Now, he says, it’s more important for the company to understand what mobile advertisers and ad agencies want, and what brands want to do.

Still, there are notable up-and-comers from the Seattle scene that are attending CTIA. Swype, which makes a novel touchscreen interface for inputting text, works mainly with handset manufacturers, but needs good relationships with wireless carriers too. Ground Truth depends in part on carriers for its mobile-use metrics. And Medio Systems runs search for several carriers’ storefronts, but has shifted towards mobile advertising and analytics.

Increasingly, it seems startups are finding other paths to market that bypass the carriers. “For me, CTIA is a waste,” says David Bluhm, co-founder and CEO of Z2Live, a Seattle startup focused on software for multiplayer mobile gaming, starting with the iPhone. “I went last year (as always) and was amazed at the carriers’ denial and complete disregard for what the iPhone had done to that point.”

So perhaps Bluhm speaks for other mobile software startups in spirit when he says, “With dozens of meeting requests and party invitations in my inbox…I am happily making progress in Seattle without talking to any carriers.”

CTIA is well aware of the broader problem, of course. The conference organizers have made it a theme to appeal to more developers this week, through special tracks on mobile apps, networking events, and pitch sessions. But it seems clear that some parts of the industry have outgrown the CTIA meetings. Mobile developers have migrated to other expos like CES (Consumer Electronics Show), the Mobile World Congress, and the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, as well as regional events like the Mass Mobile Month recently organized by mobile leaders in Massachusetts. All of this speaks to the fact that mobile developers can appeal directly to consumers now, and can sidestep the carriers to some extent. What broader effect this will have on mobile innovation remains to be seen.

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