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What to Expect at CTIA 2012

The U.S. cell phone industry’s big show, CTIA Wireless 2012, is coming up next week in New Orleans, and it looks like things are going to get a little odd. While 1,075 exhibitors are packing the show floor, big names like Samsung and Microsoft are missing and there’s a decided lack of big press conferences scheduled. I spoke to CTIA’s vice president for operations, Rob Mesirow, to find out what consumers should expect. Will We See New Phones?None of the major phone manufacturers have press conferences scheduled for the show. Samsung, of course, is set to announce its Galaxy S III in London on Thursday, and hopefully it’ll bring some units to New Orleans for those of us who didnt get a chance to go to the U.K. But the real handset action at CTIA will come from a flood of new companies you may not have heard of, like Plum Mobile, Unnecto, Emporia, and Konka, CTIA’s Mesirow said. With all smartphones becoming generic-looking glass slabs with similar features, low-cost manufacturers will come to the fore, he suggested. “I think we’ve settled in on the form factor. We’re looking at a piece of glass, and yeah, the clarity maybe becomes a differentiator, but probably not. More and more people are going to be focusing on price; that’s going to be the main differentiator,” he said. Of course, this may just be because the major manufacturers showed off their quad-core dreams at Mobile World Congress in February, leaving CTIA for new entrants trying to break into the U.S. market. On the show floor map, PCD, LG, HTC, Kyocera, Huawei and ZTE all have major booths, joined by new entrants Unnecto and Plum. Almost all of those are considered providers of less-expensive phones, except LG. Samsung, Nokia, and Motorola are all notably absent from the floor. This is likely to be an Android-heavy show, too. Apple doesn’t like to attend other people’s trade shows, Microsoft has no booth, and RIM just made its big announcement for the month. “Android and the whole Android ecosystem has always done a remarkable job at promoting themselves inside our event,” Mesirow said. What’s Coming From Carriers?Last year, AT&T announced its intention to buy T-Mobile a day before CTIA began. Mesirow said not to expect anything like that this year, as the FCC’s opposition to that merger put a chill on other big wireless mergers for the meantime. All four national carriers will have some sort of press event at the show, but only Sprint’s looks like a real announcement. Sprint has a lot to talk about: it could officially launch LTE, announce new LTE cities, or roll out WiMAX 4G on Virgin and Boost, as promised by CEO Dan Hesse. On Tuesday of the show, all four national carrier CEOs will get onstage for a panel hosted by CNBC’s Jim Cramer. I’m hoping Sprint’s Dan Hesse and AT&T’s Ralph de la Vega get into a fight. I’m curious to see that T-Mobile MVNO Simple Mobile has a large booth at the show. I’d love low-cost MVNOs like Simple Mobile, Ting, Republic Wireless, and Straight Talk to have a higher profile. Will this be their year? Is It Time to Pay With Your Phone?That isn’t to say the convention hall will be empty. The floor is jam-packed with retailers, accessories makers, app developers, international pavilions, and wireless back-end technology firms. Many of them just aren’t likely to light the average consumer’s fire. But mobile payments might, if they get off the ground. Mesirow said that Mastercard, American Express, and Western Union would all have big presences at the show, as the mobile-phone industry tries to figure out how to turn phones into e-wallets. So far, we haven’t seen any mobile payment technologies break through, and it looks like it may still be a few years. Mesirow said to look out at the show for “technologies that will bridge the mobile commerce gap,” like a phone case which includes a configurable magnetic stripe to let you swipe it through existing credit-card readers. “It’s a clever interim solution,” Mesirow said. I’ll be at CTIA from Monday, May 7 through Thursday, May 10 bringing you all the news from the show. Complete CTIA Show Coverage For the top stories in tech, follow us on Twitter at @PCMag.

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