CTIA: Was Everyone Shopping on their Phones?

Here at the just-wrapped spring version of the CTIA Wireless mobile communications show in New Orleans, the buzz on the show floor isn’t about new phones or new technologies. The buzz was about the show floor, or, more precisely, what and who was NOT at CTIA.

Only two major phone vendors, LG and HTC, had booths. No Samsung, no Motorola, no Nokia, no BlackBerry (and, obviously, no Apple). None of the four major national carriers had anything more than “innovations” spaces (Verizon and AT&T) – Sprint held meetings off campus, and I saw neither hide nor hair of T-Mobile.
While officials touted the 40,000-plus attendees, and city and venue officials noted CTIA was the largest convention New Orleans had hosted post-Katrina, the show floor felt small and barren, especially compared to past shows in Atlanta and Orlando.
Why? I spoke to several officials from these usually anchor exhibitors and the reason came down to three letters: CES.
Just as smartphones are absorbing the functions of standalone devices such as cameras and GPS devices, CES is absorbing standalone shows. This year, it was PMA that CES subsumed. And with so many eyes on it, consumer cellular companies opt to unveil their latest and greatest in Las Vegas or at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February.
By spring CTIA, there’s little to spend money on exhibiting to report.
Maybe this is just me, but I’ve never understood why CES, which encompasses the entire consumer electronics product universe, requires one show, but the wireless industry needs two.
2012: The Year of NFC?
While there was a dearth of new handsets on display, perhaps the biggest impact at CTIA came from Visa and MasterCard, both of whom had fairly large exhibits.
It seems that, finally, NFC and mobile ecommerce will take off this year. Even though both credit card companies are hawking mobile wallet solutions – Visa has PayWave and its two-week-old V.me walletservice (which inaugurated on Buy.com), and MasterCard has created the PayPass service, both are members of the ISIS mobile wallet consortium, and both have created iOS and Android wallet apps – each is taking a different approach to perfecting shopping via smartphone.
Visa sees consumers using their mobile phones instead of a credit card in increasing numbers as the number of NFC-enabled phones leap from nine (Samsung, Nokia and BlackBerry) to 90 in the next year, according to Visa president John Partridge, with whom I sat down with at CTIA.
Whether these 90 NFC-enabled smartphone models include iPhone 5 no one knows – or at least no one is officially confirming (even though there have been hints). The inference, however, was that an NFC-enabled iPhone 5 would certainly accelerate consumer NFC acceptance and use.
Visa is working on several NFC issues such as security – both on the technical side and allaying consumer fears – as well as value-added NFC functions, such as couponing and redemption at point-of-sale, sales and receipt notifications, linking loyalty programs, the ability to check balances before purchase, etc.
MasterCard, however, considering the dearth of and reliance upon NFC-enabled handsets, is taking a wait-and-see attitude towards handset-as-credit/debit card. Instead, MasterCard wants consumers to feel more comfortable using their smartphone as a mobile ecommerce platform.
According to Ed Olebe, MasterCard’s mobile wallet services head, many people shop (in the browsing sense) on their smartphones – arguably the most ubiquitous shopping platform ever created – but fewer than 1.5 percent of consumers actually complete their transaction on their handsets, which means maybe they NEVER complete the transaction.
Why? Filling in the shipping and/or billing name/address/credit card numbers on that small keyboard and small screen is way too tedious, and sending this sensitive personal and financial data over the air from potentially unknown shopping sites makes many smartphone shoppers uncomfortable.
So MasterCard is creating a raft of trusted wallet services all with an automated PayPass service at their heart – just click on the PayPass payment option, and all your previously-stored-with-MasterCard credentials are filled in for you.
By promoting payment ON a smartphone rather than BY a smartphone, MasterCard hopes to generate more business for itself and its retail clients, which would then make it easier for the company to step consumers up to use MasterCard PayPass services on an NFC-enabled smartphone, if and when.
While it will still take time for mobile ecommerce to truly take off – Partridge believes it will take three-to-five years before NFC point-of-sale terminals reach a critical mass – the presence of Visa and MasterCard certainly made CTIA worthwhile, at least for me.