All things cellular in North America come together in the Las Vegas high desert for the CTIA Wireless 2009 trade show this week. This year's shindig is being spun as an off-event for the industry, which it probably is for bigger companies. Most of the major hardware news was broken at the international equivalent of the CTIA, the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, in February. Apart from AT&T ( T) rolling out some new, if bland, models and Skype coming to Apple's ( AAPL) iPhone, the biggest legitimate phone story is Sprint Nextel ( S). The troubled operator will show the world its not-so-secret upgrade for phones running the Palm OS: the Pre. But just because the big cell companies are sitting on their thumbs doesn't mean small businesses are sitting idly, hand wringing about tomorrow. Rather, these less-big companies have stepped up and brought interesting products to this year's show. And since good news comes in such short spurts days, let's take a moment to celebrate the innovations of two smaller companies at this year's CTIA Wireless 2009. 1.) An iPhone that starts your car. myCar phone-to-car link up. UIEvolution. With the iPhone app thing turned up to 11, this really was only a matter of time. But still, I give Bellevue, Wash.-based UIEvoltion major props for demystifying and mainstreaming the obvious connection between autos and cell phones. Strictly speaking, why exactly do we need to carry ever more sophisticated and expensive automotive fobs to have the privilege to start our cars? (Toyoto Prius owners chime in here: My dearest mom lost her beloved Prius key and got dinged $300 for a replacement. Ouch.)
UIEvolution does away with all this pricey key nonsense. The company has created software that can run on any iPhone, BlackBerry, G1 or other smart phone that communicates with your car via the cell network. The application can control doors, start engines and more, plus it can interface with key automotive telematics. In other words, it can check engine condition, tire pressure and in what will be game-changing stuff, eventually this sucker will be able to read and translate engine error codes. And it can do it from anywhere served by cell phones. That means the next time you pull into the mechanic with a strange ding, you might actually know more than he does about the problem. 2.) Crowd-sourcing the cell network. SIP-based femtocell. Tatara Systems. Yes, this is way nerdy. But it's also way important. Issue No. 1 in this wacky recession for most small-business owners is turning out to be the struggle of communicating with ever more vaporous and virtual vendors, employees and clients. Cell-phone coverage is spotty. Call quality stinks. It's impossible to have a reasonable conference call on most cell phones. Never mind brain cancer, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is what I think I'm getting as I strain to hear during the garbled cell-phone calls I manage all day long. So anything that even hints at getting legitimate wireless coverage for my business is major news to me. May I introduce the concept of the femtocell: A femto is one quadrillionth of one, so a femtocell is a really, really small cell. So small that a private business or individual can install one, hook it up to a larger cell network, and finally enjoy the rapturous experience of making a decent cell-phone call.
Acton, Mass.-based Tatara Systems is showing off an imaginative riff on the femtocell concept: It runs on the Internet-based phone protocol SIP. The company is working with a code division multiplex access (CDMA) provider called Airvana to demo an all-Internet-standards-based femtocell. If this technology breaks right, sometime in the next few months, your business should be able to purchase a small box that you install in your office to extend the reach of your cell phones. Hopefully, it won't be such a stretch to lose some of the pricey landlines and save some money on your phone bill for a change.