Rob Mesirow is responsible for the strategic planning, development and oversight of CTIA WIRELESS®, the largest wireless event in the world, as well as the organization’s other trade events. He also oversees CTIA’s Certification, Membership, and Technology programs, which include industry interoperability initiatives, Common Short Code registration services and all business development activity. During his 14 years at the helm of the CTIA show, Mesirow has observed up close the mobile phone’s metamorphosis from a one-dimensional device to a whip-smart mini-computer. Mesirow, among the hardest working executives in wireless, was named one of the Top 25 Association Executives of 2004 by TradeShow Week.
Last week Mesirow and his team lured an estimated 40,000 people and hundreds more exhibitors to New Orleans, where CTIA held its annual shindig. There were companies catering to mobile payments, mobile security and mobile health on the exhibit floor; as well as wireless giants such as LG, AT&T and Qualcomm. There was also an influx of vendors from China, Spain and Israel. Chief executives from each of the big U.S. carriers–Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility, Sprint and T-Mobile USA–took the stage to talk about the momentum of the industry. Once peripheral players like Pandora, Mozilla, Visa and MasterCard stepped to the fore. Even former President Bill Clinton swooped in to give a keynote address about the importance of wireless leadership. Noticeably absent, however, were booths from stalwarts such as Blackberry maker Research in Motion, Nokia, Motorola Mobility, and the most disappointing no-show, Apple. Still, there was a palpable buzz at the show, reflecting the general sense that the wireless industry is on the upswing and a leader in the economic recovery. Mesirow, always gracious and accommodating, paused from his vibrating cellphones and the back-to-back meetings in his makeshift “office” above the showroom floor to share his views on the industry. Here are edited excerpts from Mesirow’s answers to five questions I asked about the wireless business.
1. Not long ago, the U.S. lagged other regions of the world in wireless performance and innovation. Where does the U.S. fit in the global wireless landscape today?
Mesirow: We’re really leading the world in wireless innovation. Smart phone development and usage is greater than anywhere else. We’re creating more jobs and helping get the economy back on track.
2. Ok but challenges exist, right? The show featured the leaders of the United States’ four big wireless carriers. What’s their biggest challenge?
Mesirow: Spectrum is the number one issue. (The government-controlled airwaves that companies license to transmit wireless signals.) Without it the innovation stops. We’re at 80 percent capacity. We need tonnage! So we’re going through growing pains that other regions in the world aren’t dealing with.
3. Is capacity maxing out due to the increase in data usage on smart phones?
Mesirow: Our consumption of media has changed. The days of spending a big monthly bill on 150 channels and only watching three are over. About 30% of young people are consuming most of their media on tablets. Nobody makes appointments to sit down and watch television shows anymore. You want it on demand. So the distribution model and the consumption model has changed.
4. What does this mean to the industry today and in the future?
Mesirow: Now we’re at an inflection point. First we shifted from a voice-centric industry to a data-centric industry. We used to be focused on phones, hardware, form factors. Now, it’s not about the hardware. It’s all about the software. Apple changed everything. We’re a sofware-centric industry. Phones have become commoditized. It’s simply a race to the bottom in terms of pricing for phones. What people really care about now is what’s behind the glass. The operating system, the software ecosystem, the cloud, storage, security.
Yeah, we’ve even seen manufacturers that were once king—Nokia, Motorola—either get bought up by software companies or lose their dominance.
Mesirow:Yep. I think you’re going to see some of the other big guys go away too. They’ll be replaced by the likes of Huawei (a global information and communications technology solutions provider based in China).
5. You mentioned the 800 pound gorilla, Apple. What are your thoughts on the battle between Android and Apple?
Mesirow: I think it’s healthy. We like competition. We would like to see more of it. We would like to see Microsoft Windows compete. I don’t think RIM is dead yet. The could find a way to creatively license the RIM Operating System. Those systems help make wireless a big piece of the business and consumer driven economy. And it’s becoming a bigger piece of the educational economy. Apple, Android … thier wireless software is a major force driving the the globe’s commerce engine.