The CONSUMER'S Electronics Show

I am not at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, and I am pretty happy about it. It's not that I don't like Vegas, which I don't. Nor is it that I don't like playing with gadgets, which I do. In fact, at my age I now fully accept the smirking insight that shiny electronic things are a proxy for sex. I am OK with that.

No, being away from CES gives me the proper psychic distance from tech hype, which this week is about to hit a new high. Verizon kicked it off with the announcement of its mobile TV offering in March, the first to use the live broadcast technology from Qualcom's MediaFlow. Meanwhile, Microsoft teamed with Ford to bring full-blown digital communications into cars. And the long-rumored Apple mobile phone reportedly is ready to fly at Macworld, too.

Don't get me wrong. I covet all three of these toys with the same erotic verve I once craved--well, you know. I just think that "consumer" tends to be the real missing element at the CES and other tech fests. In talking to a number of mobile marketing and retail executives before the holiday run-up to CES, I detected a growing appreciation for where consumers will really direct the technology this year. In most cases, I find myself reaching even farther than my friends in seeing 2007 as a very consumer--not electronics--driven year.

Consumer indifference to new mobile technologies and services finally will convince carriers and content providers that pricing is a deterrent. "Carriers will begin to bundle data and voice together so it is easier to purchase than today," says Allan Keiter, president, MyRatePlans.com, who sees more people embracing data. I would go further. As mobile TV and in-car data services start replicating familiar brands for remote access, consumers will reject the idea of paying two and three times for the same brands across multiple platforms. Among the bills for cable, ISP, mobile voice, print subs, satellite radio, in-car services, and now mobile data, we are over-subscribed. Unless advertising fully supports these new mobile content models, or pay-once-access-anywhere bundles emerge, a lot of these platforms will languish in earlyadopterville.

Derek Handley, CEO, The Hyperfactory, thinks that direct-to-consumer mobile content brands like Jamster and Thumbplay will become much bigger clients in the mobile marketing space. "It's their first opportunity to market directly to their buyers over the mobile medium as opposed to going indirectly through the Internet or other outlets," he says. I would go further and say that we will see mobile-only D2C brands emerge from grassroots popularity in 2007. There is an entire shadow eco-system of content on mobile that young users are discovering and sharing virally on their own. Once content sharing becomes easier, we are going to see brands we never heard of grow out of the staggering peer-to-peer potential of this medium.

In fact, I think that user-generated content and interaction is going to surprise everyone this year as a key driver in all aspects of mobile. The technology yearns to communicate, not just receive. The triumph of SMS, perhaps the kludgiest, ugliest, and most awkward media vehicle yet, demonstrates how much people want to make contact with one another. According to Nellymoser CEO John Puterbaugh, "end-uses of next-generation platforms will include user-generated content and community (message boards and blogs), interactivity (voting, rating, polling), viral (sending), and rich media (video, audio, dynamic text and image feeds)."

I think that carriers and publishers should take their cues from the two big success stories of mobile data thus far--SMS and ringtones. Both media suggest that consumers use personal devices to be social, to project an identity in the public space by branding themselves with media and by reaching out to peers in real time. Any content that forgets the social element of personal technology is destined to be an also-ran.

The same holds true for marketing campaigns. You have to be sociable on this medium. Yes, the banners and the pre-rolls are coming, and I am sure they will enjoy their 3% CTRs and favorable brand-lift statistics. But the stuff we will be talking about as innovative marketing on mobile will turn the brands into characters in a conversation. They will offer experiences users want to engage with, to participate in. We have seen very few good examples of this yet.

This week may be about CES, but 2007 will be about the consumer's electronics show--whether and how users encounter in-car digital, mobile broadcast TV, a real iTunes phone. My early guess is that few consumers out there other than gadget-horny dweebs like me were waiting breathlessly for any of these technologies. I think they are looking for something else on these phones, and they may already be showing us what those things are. But the press is busy in Vegas.