Week in review: Wireless in Las Vegas

The CTIA wireless trade show grabbed the bulk of headlines, but the big stories were less about handsets and more about network openness and resulting new features. Also, music industry mixes it up.(By CNET News.com's Michelle Meyers)
Written by Natalie Gagliordi, Contributor
The wireless industry's CTIA trade show grabbed the bulk of headlines this week, but the bigger stories were less about glitzy new handsets and more about network openness and resulting new features such as those making a more user-friendly mobile Web.

Handset-wise, the product that seemed to make the biggest show-floor splash was the Samsung Instinct, an iPhone competitor that features a touch-screen interface and a boatload of other features. (Click here for more CTIA coverage or here for the related blog.)

But from the podium, the news was all about the mobile Web, which Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin said in a keynote address "will shape the future development of the industry and change who the successful companies are going to be.

"The mobile Internet is the new, new thing in the industry," he said. "And it is here for real and happening now."

A case in point was Yahoo's big announcement at the show of upgrades to its OneSearch product that the company says make mobile search smarter, more relevant, and easier to use with voice-activation technology. It also showed Yahoo's determination not to let Google get ahold of the mobile Web.

Marco Boerries, Yahoo's executive vice president of "connected life," introduced the new Yahoo OneSearch 2.0 during a keynote address, promising "instant answers to any query, not just Web links."

Practically speaking, this means that search results will expand from traditional hyperlinks into other media--a search for "New York" could yield subway schedules, for example, or a search for local sushi restaurants could bring up Zagat's ratings and reviews along with one-click reservations. And searching the name of a friend could provide links to the social-networking sites that the friend uses.

Another related product unveiled at the show was the latest version of Microsoft's mobile operating system, Windows Mobile 6.1. The update includes several new features designed to make devices with the OS easier to manage and help users save time--a likely response to complaints from users about navigation difficulties in prior versions.

Of course, developments in the mobile Web relate directly to efforts on the part of U.S. mobile operators to open up their networks. Federal Communications Chairman Kevin Martin, in fact, during a keynote address, told such operators that he was rewarding their efforts by not pushing for more regulation.

Martin said he'd circulate an order among the FCC commissioners to dismiss Skype's petition to apply Carterfone rules to the wireless industry. The Carterfone decision by the FCC in 1968 forced the Bell telephone monopoly to open up and allow outside devices to run on its closed network, as long as the devices didn't cause damage to the system.

Dan Hesse, Sprint Nextel's CEO, who also spoke at CTIA, said this will continue to make it easier for customers to get access to any application and to use a wide variety of devices on the network.

"The 'walled garden' networks are a thing of the past," he said. "As a charter member of Open Handset Alliance, we will explore and push wireless data even further than it's ever been pushed before."

And Verizon Wireless CEO Lowell McAdam also made it clear during his keynote speech that the industry has to be proactive to keep regulation at bay. He said that if the carriers open up their networks and listen to what customers want, there will be no need for regulators to get involved.

All the talk of openness got us thinking about Google's work on its previously announced Android Linux-based mobile operating system, which is far from finished. AT&T at the CTIA show said it's considering using Android handsets. But several key decisions regarding Android still need to be made, and partners and developers are starting to get a little anxious.

Google, for it's part this week, also clarified that it participated in the recent wireless spectrum auction not with the goal to win, but to help drive bidding high enough to ensure that open-access rules it had pushed for would be adopted.

Tuning into music industry
It was also a big week for music industry news, which peaked Thursday with the expected announcement of MySpace Music, a service that will be jointly operated by News Corp.'s MySpace.com and, at least initially, three out of the four top record labels.

The service will roll out gradually over the next three to four months and offer free streaming music, unprotected MP3 downloads, ringtones, and e-commerce offerings such as merchandise and ticket sales. The goal is to make MySpace a one-stop shop for everything music.

The verdict's still out, however, on whether MySpace Music will be a legitimate challenger to wrest away some of the bargaining power Apple has wielded as the No. 1 online music seller. That status, incidentally, was confirmed by Apple this week.

Among the top four music companies participating in MySpace Music, EMI was the lone holdout. Perhaps that has something to do with EMI's incoming chief of its digital unit, Douglas Merrill, who left his job as Google's chief information officer, it was learned this week, and might just save the industry.

In other music news, the troubled SpiralFrog music service signed a deal with Warner Music this week, but it may be awhile before it can actually feature music from Warner artists.

Hardware and hard times
In other news this week, the low-power, low-cost Atom chip played a central figure at IDF Shangai, but it was by no means the only processor on the agenda. Also at Intel's developer event, 10 hardware vendors--from Panasonic to Lenovo--showed off their takes on Intel's notion of portable computing.

IBM was added to a list of "excluded" federal government contractors after the Environmental Protection Agency alleged serious wrongdoing. The ban, however, was later lifted, a relief for a company that last year generated nearly $1.43 billion from federal government contracts.

Meanwhile, in a sign of some trying economic times, several technology companies announced plans to scale back operations and lay off employees. Dell is closing its flagship factory in Austin, Texas, amid hard times--and history isn't on its side. Motorola, which has seen its handset market share plummet, announced it's laying off 2,600 employees and will take a $104 million tax charge for the first quarter to cover severance costs. And Google is laying off about 300 employees in its newly acquired DoubleClick ad business.

Also of note
Adobe Systems' Lightroom 2 beta broadens editing horizons...Open XML passes, but challenges are coming to vote...Homeland Security ended up the first to blink in Real ID staring match...There's no shortage of social network aggregator sites...Google Docs getting offline access...Sun Microsystems close to buying Intel would-be competitor Montalvo.

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