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Wireless innovators try to stand out in a crowd

If it's a new or better use for a cellphone, it's here. But even if you have the next can't-miss breakthrough, getting noticed isn't easy.

September 11, 2008|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Bobbing his head to a hip-hop song by Method Man, Mike Michels tried to reel in people walking past the CyFi booth on a crowded convention center floor Wednesday.
"It's the world's first wireless speaker for cellphones," he shouted to a man in a suit and glasses who slowed as he passed.
"OK," the man said, and kept walking.
"It weighs less than 4 ounces," Michels said to another. The man shook his head, laughed and wandered to the next booth, which was giving away juice in exchange for a business card.
Mobile products and services make up one of the hottest sectors in the tech world. But, as Michels knows, it's tough getting noticed.
CyFi, a Los Angeles start-up, is one of the many companies showing off new gear at this year's CTIA convention, one of the wireless industry's biggest trade shows, as they try to turn their products into must-haves for cellphone owners.

People want to use their phones for more than just talking. CTIA-the Wireless Assn., the trade group that puts on the convention, said this week that revenue from wireless data services rose 40% in the first half of 2008, to $14.8 billion.

Grabbing a piece of that pie is a different story, especially with so many products doing very similar things.

This week at the Moscone Center, CTIA exhibitors include 10 companies that deal in billing and accounting systems for phones, 22 that work in location-based services and tracking technology and 33 that deal in mobile entertainment such as ring tones and games.

There are companies that help you use your phone to avoid traffic and companies that track trucks stuck in traffic, services that turn voice mail into text messages and other services that turn text into voice. They all are jockeying for the attention of consumers, carriers or handset manufacturers, angling for a piece of the growing market.

"Mobile is an unexploited territory," said Nic Covey, director of insights at research firm Nielsen Mobile. "The Internet is a mature space, so mobile is ramping up."

As CTIA got underway Wednesday, Research in Motion unveiled a new BlackBerry flip phone, Yahoo Inc. announced an application that lets you sync your social networks with your iPhone and Purina debuted two mobile websites dedicated to pets.

A lot of the services at CTIA and the companies launching them won't stick -- conference organizers say about 40% of the companies that participated last year didn't return.

"It's like 'Mobile Start-Up Idol,' " said William Ho, research director of Current Analysis, a research firm, likening the group of exhibitors to talent show contestants. "A lot of them fall off the map."

Jeff Lotman, the founder of CyFi, is sure his product will succeed. He came up with the idea for it when he started riding his bike in Los Angeles to stay fit. His wife would scold him for riding while wearing ear buds (it's illegal in California), so he decided to try to make a speaker to plug into his iPhone while he rode.

He's now configured the device so that it lets people talk on their cellphones while on their bikes and listen to music from their cellphones.

CTIA marked CyFi's introduction to the wireless industry. Lotman and Michels, his vice president of operations and cycling trainer, knew it wasn't going to be easy.

"There's a lot of noise out there," Lotman said. "How do you break through the clutter?"

The mobile business is especially difficult to crack because many new companies need approval from carriers such as Verizon Wireless or Sprint Nextel Corp. or from handset makers such as Nokia Corp. for their product to really catch on.

A site that shows videos on a cellphone, for instance, will be much easier to find if a carrier puts a logo for it on its portal, which consumers use to access the mobile Web.

"It's a carrier-controlled market," said Rajeev Raman, chief executive and founder of Mywaves, a video site for cellphones. "The vast majority of consumer-facing applications on mobiles today need to come out through carriers."

Michels kept his eye out for the big guys too. That's part of the reason he blared all sorts of music from the CyFi speaker perched on two handlebars on the exhibitor table. It's tough to make people stop when Yahoo is giving away sorbet and margaritas at its booth down the way.

A buyer for a major electronics retail chain walked by and expressed interest, but said it was hard to know what was going to succeed and fail.

"We've seen hundreds and hundreds of these and very few make it," said the buyer, who didn't give his name because he wasn't permitted by his company to speak to the media.

But people seemed interested in the device and after a little while crowds formed around the table. A guy in a blue shirt walked over and fiddled with the device, nodding his head to the Rolling Stones.

"Wow, I love it," he said, chatting with Michels about the device. "I'm really impressed."

Once the man left, Michels let out a deep breath. Turns out the guy's job is to find cool new products and accessories for one of the biggest of the big guys: Microsoft Corp.

"That was huge," Michels said, looking a bit surprised. "For him to be jazzed about it like that -- that was great."

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alana.semuels@latimes.com

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