Focus On Mobility At CES 2006


As companies show off their latest and greatest devices at the Consumer Electronic Show, each brimming with new features, one trend remains clear: the products are becoming more mobile. The king of the mobile devices, of course, is the cell phone. This year, handset manufacturers are showing off products that realize the promises of the past. From Qualcomm’s MediaFlo, which allows cell phones to pick up satellite television, to Samsung’s integration of XM Satellite Radio (XMSR) capabilities, companies keep one-upping themselves with new capabilities.

“The difference is companies are embracing mobility,” said Jill Rosengard, managing director of consumer electronic research and strategy firm Frank N. Magin Associates Inc. “The connectivity between devices is what’s standing out in this show and missing in last year’s event.”

The largest trend is the addition of music and video to the cellphone and other portable devices. While not new, companies are showing off phones capable of downloading at much faster speeds, allowing for better quality video, and in some cases, the possibility of live video conferencing.

Samsung, for example, has a phone that can access WiMax broadband speed of 30 megabytes per second, or comparable to higher tier cable Internet speeds. Third generation wireless networks currently available run at roughly a tenth of the speed.

“There’s more emphasis on multimedia,” said Randy Smith, vice president of marketing for wireless terminals at Samsung. “It used to be instant messaging (on phones), now it’s multimedia messaging.”

Enhancing the entertainment abilities on the cell phone was a common theme at CES. LG Electronics, for example, showed off its MediaFlo phone for Verizon Wireless, which it expects to be out in the market in the second half. Long talked about, MediaFlo was able to pick up live television from cartoon and Major League Baseball channels via a satellite feed. Verizon Wireless is a joint venture between Verizon Communications and Vodafone.

Both Samsung and LG showed off cell phones that run on Cingular’s third-generation wireless network, which can be used to download music and videos faster.

“We’re stressing differentiation of products – different phones for different carriers,” said Jon Maron, director of marketing for LG’s mobile business.

Apparently, a mobile phone isn’t mobile enough, as LG also unveiled a remote control-like device for Bluetooth-enabled phones. The device, which looks like a short pen with numbers and a small display, is designed to be worn like a lanyard or hung from the vest pocket.

Motorola also bolstered its resources with partnerships with Google and Eastman Kodak. Later this year, Motorola handsets will be able to run Google searches and have cameras that use Kodak’s imaging sensor technology.

Motorola’s deal with Kodak will give its camera phones “sharper, brighter images,” according to Motorola executive Scott Durchslag.

Motorola also continued its trend of “wearable technology” first unveiled in the last CES. The company showed off more jackets and sunglasses with built-in cellphones and digital music players. It also debuted the second version of ROKR, which offers more memory and supports formats other than Apple Computer’s iTunes.

“This year is about implementing the vision of seamless mobility,” said Motorola Chief Technology Officer Padmasree Warrior.

AT&T Inc. was a company that finally executed on its long-touted, and also delayed, Internet television service. The phone company demonstrated its service, called U-Verse. The service allows users to run searches based on their favorite actors or shows, as well as programs their digital video recorders through their Cingular Wireless cell phones. Cingular is jointly owned by AT&T and BellSouth Corp.

AT&T executive Lee Ann Champion stressed it was about control for the consumer. While not commenting on the details of the service, which is expected to launch later this year, she said a bundle would be competitively priced.

Sprint Nextel Corp. was on hand with cable box maker Scientific-Atlanta to demonstrate the fruits of Sprint’s joint venture with a group of cable companies, among them Comcast. Sprint plans to enable its cell phones to work with the set-top box so they can be controlled remotely. Cisco agreed last month to acquire Scientific-Atlantic.

“This provides Sprint with a great opportunity for a new market,” said John Garcia, who will head up the new joint venture. “The cable executives are excited by what this means to their future.”

In another partnership, Netgear is teaming up with Skype to bring what was once a strictly computer or fixed phone experience and turning it into a cordless one. Netgear licensed Skype’s voice-over Internet protocol technology to create a mobile phone-like device that is powered by wireless fidelity hot-spots.

The phone is designed as a cheap alternative for the home or office, and frees up the person from using a personal computer to chat via their Skype account. Calls to fellow Skype users are free, while calls to standard phones cost roughly 2 cents a minute.

“It’s giving them a more flexible way to access their application,” said Ron Provencio, a product line manager for Netgear.

Event observers noted there appeared to be more buzz at this year’s event.

“The energy went up a notch,” Rosengard said. “It’s palpable, and I can feel it.”

Among the most popular booths was the Blu-Ray display, which showed off technology from companies such as Sony. Crowds huddled around to catch crisper versions of films such as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Stealth.”

Not to be outdone, Toshiba executives said they were optimistic about the prospects for the HD-DVD format for the next generation higher quality DVD. The format is competing against the Blu-ray format being promoted by companies such as Panasonic and Sony.

Toshiba announced an inexpensive HD-DVD player at the show that is expected to ship in March and will cost $499. HD-DVD equipment is less expensive and can play the current generation of DVDs, says Toshiba Vice President Mark Simons.

Among the more interesting mobile products was a handheld lie detector. The device, which will ship in February by privately held Aroa, plugs into a phone’s ear jack and can detect the stress levels of the person on the line.