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A Standard(s) CTIA

After an event such as the just concluded CTIA in Orlando, I am invariably asked, “So, whaddya see?” meaning, “What cool gadgets did you see that I may want to buy or at least drool longingly over?”

And, yes, this CTIA show produced some cool gadgets – 3D phones from Sprint/HTC and AT&T/LG, for instance. I stumbled across some other interesting gadgets and apps.

And, of course, the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile mating was a prime topic of useless speculative conversation, the very definition of much ado about nothing – at least until the regulators get their politically motivated mitts into it.

These varying devices, apps and deals were, to me, not the most drool-worthy things I “saw” at CTIA. What impressed me are a half dozen emerging standards, each of which could radically alter our lives and behaviors and the industry more than any individual gadget.

I won’t be able to delve too deeply into any of these, but I’ve supplied links to each of the SIGs.

  • Femtocell: Femtocell is a cable modem-sized device (and getting smaller all the time) that plugs into a home or office router to connect it to a carrier, to create a personal cell tower radiating high-speed voice and data spectrum over around 5,000 square feet. Not only do consumers get bullet-proof no-call-dropping reception, but it removes heavy users from the increasingly burdened networks, making connections easier for everyone else. Carriers are beginning to identify high-volume users and making femtocell deals with them to ease network congestion. Femtocell is an open standard overseen by the Femtocell Forum, so anyone can play.
  • mHealth: An entire section of the show floor was dedicated to this topic, which could have far reaching consequences in not only how we live our lives – and if we can live our lives – but on government policy, national economics and the creation of new infrastructure and industries. There isn’t one mHealth “standard” per se (okay, so I’m cheating a bit), but an ecosystem being slowly and deliberately built with 4G networks and healthcare system interfaces key pieces. The best place to follow this emerging business area is the mHealth Alliance.
  • MHL: That’s Mobile High-Definition Link, which combines an HDMI connection with mobile device charging. In other words, a tablet or smartphone can be connected to an HDTV via an MHL HDMI or MicroUSB-to-HDMI cable to stream full 1080p video/7.1 surround sound and charge the mobile device at the same time. Both the mobile and the HDTV have to include the MHL chip, but a MicroUSB male/HDMI female adapter will be available. The Samsung Galaxy S II phone, Sprint HTC EVO 3D phone, and HTC View 7-inch tablet are the first mobile devices to be MHL’ed and the MHL Consortium, which includes HDMI licensor Silicon Image, hopes many more will follow, along with cable makers.
  • NFC: Morphing a cellphone into a wallet has been a long-gestating objective, but most of the pieces have finally reached critical mass and maturity. All that seems to be missing is the “no, you go first” impetus from someone to get the NFC snowball rolling. The ecosystem completion challenges are similar to the drive to create digital TV standards – a lot of conflicting and competing entities including cellphone makers, operating system programmers, banks and other financial institutions, credit card issuers, app developers, chip makers, pay terminal makers and especially carriers at loggerheads over who controls what pieces and who pays for what. But everyone seems to think NFC’s potential will push someone forward to open up the mobile wallet Cumberland Gap this year – perhaps Apple, the one company with the juice and control over all its phone pieces, withthe iPhone 5, will play NFC’s Daniel Boone. Follow the trailblazing action at the NFC Forum.
  • Qi/WiPower Wireless Charging: Believe it or not, there’s a wireless charging format war underway. On one side is Powermat, the leading wireless charging system, along with Qualcomm and Duracell, with a standard called WiPower (pronounced WEE-power). On the other side is Qi (pronounced “chee,” the Chinese concept of power aura usually spelled “chi”), promoted by the Wireless Power Consortium, which includes Best Buy, Black & Decker, BlackBerry, Energizer, HTC, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Panasonic, Samsung and Texas Instruments. Even though Powermat dominates the market with about 80 percent share, Qi’s quantity and quality of partners – and the fact WiPower’s website has nothing on it probably gives it an edge.
  • Wi-Fi Certified Hotspot Program: IMHO, the most important announcement of the week was the announcement of this certification program from the Wi-Fi Alliance. The aim of the standard is to make accessing Wi-Fi as easy and ubiquitous as cellphone roaming. The alliance hopes to create a set of specifications by mid-2012, which would promote partnering of cell carriers and hotspot providers similar to the reward deals between airlines, hotels and car rental firms. So, when someone enters any Wi-Fi hotspot, their Wi-Fi device automatically connects to a Wi-Fi hotspot provided by a partner of your cell carrier, which handles all the billing. At some point, “Wi-Fi” will be an additional cellphone plan option along with data minutes and texting. No more drilling through 20 available networks to find an open one, no more interstitial web pages some mobile browsers can’t handle, no more signing up and re-signing up for a X-hour(s) of Wi-Fi use. All connected, all the time.

Each of these standards faces an uphill climb toward, well, standardization. But hopefully at some point, we’ll be able to buy a mobile device that can always automatically connect either via cellular or Wi-Fi, check our vital signs, connect to an HDTV and stay powered, replace cash and credit cards, and recharge without having to be plugged in. Now that’s cool and drool-worthy.

Stewart Wolpin is a senior analyst for Digital Tech Consulting.