Summary:

Mobile industry trade group CTIA hopes that replacing its two suffering conferences with a single fall event will halt its fall into trade show irrelevance. MWC and CES have been stealing CTIA’s thunder, but it might be too late to steal it back.

Hesse (third from left) and the CEOs of AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile at CTIA Wireless

Instead of running two suffering conferences, mobile carrier industry group CTIA hopes to create a single successful “super mobile show”. In 2014 it’s canning its annual spring conference and will instead merge that content with its smaller enterprise-and-IT-focused show, MobileCON, which it typically holds every year in September or October.

CTIA’s eponymous spring conference used to be the biggest mobile and wireless event in North America, providing the latest showcase for new phones, services and technology. But in the last five years or so the event has been overshadowed by the CEA’s Consumer Electronics Showcase in Las Vegas and the GSM Association’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Not only do both shows take place right before CTIA each calendar year, but shifting trends in the industry made CTIA less and less relevant. CTIA is a carrier-driven event, but as the smartphone opened up the mobile ecosystem to a wealth of new third-party apps, OSes and devices; the role of the carrier has shrunk. Meanwhile, the importance of the smartphone as a high-powered connected computer has gained primacy, which made CES a natural fit for new device and app launches.

CTIA’s other big focus was on the arcane world of network infrastructure, in particular the CDMA technologies used by a good deal of operators in the Americas. But as global carriers consolidated under a single GSM-driven 4G technology, LTE, CTIA’s networking influenced dwindled. MWC, which originally focused on European operators and GSM standards, became a much more worldly conference.

While CTIA didn’t specifically cite the competition in its announcement, the big reason for placing its unified super show in the fall can only be to put some distance between it and CES and MWC. The first merged event will be held the week of Sept. 9 in Las Vegas, which positions CTIA to catch new device launches for the holidays.

CTIA’s exhibitors and members have been clamoring for a single-show format for years, but I wonder if the move is a bit too late to restore the conference’s luster. As I’ve said before, the biggest problem with CTIA is that, as a conference, it has functioned more as a big podium from which carriers talked down to the industry. That was fine 10 years ago when carriers were the alpha and the omega of mobile, but since then the industry has outgrown the operators.

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