Leaving Las Vegas: A CTIA Tech Travelogue

I was at CTIA last week pitching various column ideas to SlashGear Editor Vincent Nguyen, and he shot them down, one by one. An analysis of the Kindle vs. iPad? No, SlashGear has covered that more than once, and we'll all be writing hands-on reports next week. How the digital home environment has changed? New columnist Ben Bajarin just used that theme as his debut for SlashGear. How I lived on loaner laptops, cellphones and 3G modems last week when our town was out of power? Too close to Michael Gartenberg's recent column on traveling with just a cellphone. Apparently, the big stuff is covered. So instead, I'm going to try to provide a look into how one analyst covers a trade show: a tech travelogue, of sorts.

CTIA Day -1: Arrive in Las Vegas a full day and a half early, as the day before the show is often full of trade shows and meetings. Not this year. I looked into moving to a later flight and spending another day with my family, but the flights were all overbooked. Discover that there are people coming to this town for vacations. Really? Who knew. Car rental place promises eternal damnation if I don't take the extra insurance. Don't take the extra insurance anyway.

Park in my usual spot in the Hilton's North parking garage. Yes, I'm here often enough to have a usual spot. Strikes me that this is really sad. Laugh at the couple walking hand-in-hand trying to figure out what entertainment the Hilton offers (answer: none. They killed the Star Trek Experience and even Barry Manilow pulled up shop to moved to a rival venue). Check into hotel and start writing a report under embargo on Palm's Pre Plus and Pixi Plus coming to AT&T. Make mistake of turning on TV, get nowhere on the report.

CTIA Day 0: Spend most of the day holed up in the hotel catching up on email and non-CTIA-related reports. Shut down in late afternoon to head to the Bellagio for a Motorola dinner. Walk about a mile inside the hotel (literally) trying to find the right ballroom. Discover later that there was a much shorter route – and I've been to the ballrooms in this hotel at least a dozen times before. The dinner was basically an informal way to introduce the Motorola i1 Android phone for Sprint's iDEN (Nextel) network. The i1 could be mistaken for the CLIQ XT at T-Mobile – I had one on hand for comparison – though it has been ruggedized somewhat. Pouring water on it did no damage, but I was asked to refrain from dunking it in the water cup (take a note: analysts make terrible dinner companions). The i1 should do fairly well; there are still a lot of people on the iDEN network who are looking for something other than the single RIM BlackBerry Sprint offers.

Left the dinner early to head to the Renaissance for ShowStoppers. Discover I missed meeting Dirty Jobs' Mike Rowe at Motorola. Oh well. Showstoppers is one of two evening events geared towards press and analysts; it's a large room with vendor tables staffed by senior PR execs and product managers, and can be the best way to see a lot of products and build relationships with the companies. Unfortunately, building relationships was all I did at this particular event, as there wasn't much new to see.

From there I drove over to the Venetian and followed the giant deceptive billboards to the Tao (it's just a regular nightclub; I have yet to see the bare-backed woman in the ads) for Verizon Wireless' low key party. At the Fall CTIA party I had a terrific conversation with Verizon CEO Lowell McAdams without any PR handlers around, but this time I spent most of my time talking to the PR handlers themselves.

Back to the hotel and a few more minutes of writing the Palm report before heading to bed.

CTIA Day 1: With my staff attending the keynotes, I headed straight to carrier meetings and press conferences at the convention center. After meetings at one end of the convention center, walked to the other end of the convention for Samsung's gala Galaxy S launch. I can't describe how happy I was to find that the wacky dance troupe from Barcelona was not back for an encore; instead, a troupe put on a multimedia play showing a day in the life of a Galaxy S user that was surprisingly effective. The Galaxy S has an amazing screen, but perhaps more amazing is that the software Samsung is adding to Android 2.1 actually appears to enhance the overall user experience, something I can't say for TouchWiz on the Behold II. After getting some hands-on time with a unit and coming away impressed, I walked to the other end of the convention for a T-Mobile presentation on its HDPA+ network.

T-Mobile had a small room and no chairs because analysts and journalists like walking and standing all day. T-Mobile claims that its HSPA+ network will be able to download files as fast as rivals' 4G networks, and it is just a software upgrade for its existing base stations, unlike WiMAX or LTE. They showed off a nice little data stick and a Dell netbook with HSPA+ capabilities. I have two problems with T-Mobile's message here: 1) it's great that HSPA+ is just a software upgrade, but just like its competitors, it hasn't been broadly deployed yet and there are no handsets that take advantage of it, 2) I get the feeling that consumers aren't going to buy a marketing message that goes, "our 3G network is faster than their 4G network for file downloads" because 4 is a bigger number than 3, and who really cares about file downloads? Are people really downloading files all day to their phones?

I then walked all the way back to the other end of the convention center again for Sprint's big press conference. First thing you notice: no chairs here, either. Then the music hits ear-splitting levels because event people seem to believe this will pump you up and make you more receptive to the message to come. In actual fact, it makes it harder to hear the message to come because you have been temporarily been rendered deaf. Sprint's message was worth hearing, and boiled down to, "our 4G network is faster than their 3G network, and we've got an insane phone, HTC's EVO 4G, that can use the network to do cool things, like watching YouTube in HD." (Of course, if you want to download files for some reason, you can do that, too.) Sprint did a great job showing how the combination of high end hardware and a fast network can create a unique user experience, and the EVO 4G launch was clearly the high point of the show.

However, the show was not yet over, and it was time to walk halfway back to the other end of the convention center again, this time for a quick meeting with an OS vendor and then on to moderate a panel discussion about why we have a dozen mobile operating systems. Goes well.

Out for a quick dinner, and on to Pepcom's Mobile Focus, which is a lot like Showstoppers only with more handset vendors. I had missed a Kyocera analyst event while I was doing the panel, so I stopped by their table for some quick hands on time with the new Zio (an undifferentiated Android phone, but one that could cause RIM some trouble in the prepaid market). I then moved to Dell's table where an Aero was sitting on the table next to Dell's new Android phones for Brazil and China. Unfortunately, Dell wouldn't allow the Aero to be powered up, so here's what I know: It's a thin, plastic device running Android [unknown] version with an [unknown] user interface overlay with [unknown] features and is coming to AT&T at [unknown] date at [unknown] price. When a client asked what my analytical option was, I replied with [unknown] insights.

At HTC's table, they confirm that an HD2 is on the way to my house. That's great, but I could really have used it at the show – it comes preloaded with the Transformers movie, which I have not seen but it has to be better than the terrible drama Continental is showing on the West-to-East route on the way home. At Sony Ericsson's table, get hands on time with all the phones launched last month at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona; I missed the launch event there because Samsung scheduled its Wave press insanity at the same time. I already have an XPERIA X10, so it was a bit of a shock to see the X10 mini. This isn't a smaller version of the X10, it's a Honey-I-Shrunk-The-Phone version of the X10. I wonder if any of the X10's user experience can translate to such a small form factor. Even the full size phones aren't necessarily that big – the Vivaz is a wisp of a phone that does not look like it is big enough to have HD video recording capabilities.

I skipped further evening festivities to return to my room, attempt to write that Palm report again, and pass out.

CTIA Day 2: I skipped a breakfast meeting where Samsung talked LTE and instead actually finished the Palm report, then started writing up the EVO 4G before heading over to the convention center for late morning meetings. The first one was with a silicon vendor in the meeting room area, which is at the absolute back of Central Hall. Next, it was halfway back to the North Hall for AT&T's annual press and analyst lunch. You know what's great about lunch meetings? No, not the food – I keep strictly kosher and don't eat at most of these events – but you're pretty much guaranteed to have chairs. AT&T switches things up and doesn't talk about the speed of its network at all, focusing instead on devices: it has the highest smartphone penetration rate of any carrier in the world, and the rest of its lineup has been overtaken by "QMDs," which sounds like a weapon stockpiled by dictators, but is actually AT&T's term for QWERTY featurephones. AT&T also showed off a tablet not made by Apple, and AT&T is making a serious push into connecting every device you can buy at Best Buy. Seriously, that's Glen Lurie's goal for his next performance review. Good luck, Glen!

Unfortunately, I had to leave early to make my next meeting with a handset vendor whose booth is way in the front of Central Hall. While walking the half mile or so, AGAIN, it occurs to me that this is the first time I have set foot on in the Expo at all. I didn't actually have a chance to see any of the booths at that point because that meeting was followed by two others with a regional U.S. carrier and a distributor. On my way out to get dinner I was waylaid by representatives from two clients; we catch up, they ask for a recap of the show so far, and we tell funny stories to each other until my brain points out that if I get dinner I will not collapse from hunger. And, as a bonus, I will get to sit down.

After dinner, it's off to a 3 hour Nokia strategy event for analysts where Nokia does a credible job of explaining its Symbian roadmap but doesn't inspire confidence that the company will be a force in North America any time soon.

After this, several members of my team head to AT&T's party, but I go back to the hotel to do more writing and pack up for the return flight.

CTIA Day 3: Scramble to edit staff reports on Samsung's Galaxy S and Kyocera's Zio before heading to the convention center for one last meeting. Look at my automatically-generated boarding pass and realize that my flight boarding time has been pushed up, so I cancel my morning vendor meeting. Then Continental delays the flight. The meeting is back on, but I don't want to risk missing the flight in case the delay is reduced, so I run the entire way to the convention center and back. Get to the airport fairly quickly (if you use I-15 and ignore the signs to the airport, you can cut the drive to the rental car return area significantly) and encounter no hassles returning the car, which is mildly miraculous. Security lines are long, but I'm through with plenty of time to sit for hours with Eric Zeman of Phonescoop while Continental finds a plane that flies properly. The 4:50 flight boards before our 2:20 flight. Once on board, the flight attendant asks us to turn off all BlackBerries, blueberries, strawberries, boisenberries, and Halle Berries. Cute. I tweet, "Cue Sheryl Crow – I'm Leaving Las Vegas" and shut down.