Whatever the reasons behind it, Sprint’s decision to offer exactly zero hard infomation about its Xohm WiMax launch at CTIA was one of the biggest losing hands in Vegas this week. Not only did the company’s strange silent stance produce confusion and grumbling in partners’ booths, it has lit a WiMax-failed-hype meme that won’t do Sprint any marketing favors when it tries to launch the new wireless network later this year.
While I’m not as pessimistic as some (like Stacy over at GigaOM) about WiMax’s eventual place in the broadband-services world, there wasn’t a lot of confidence instilled by Sprint’s unwillingness to commit to any specifics about a service that the company still claims to be on track for a Q2 launch in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. (UPDATE: According to other reports, Sprint is now saying the launch will be “later this year.” Just more confusion showing how muddled the message was this week.)
The CTIA event was a perfect platform for Sprint to spread the word — hundreds of telecom-centric scribes filled the press room, snarfing down stinky barbecue sandwiches while waiting, perhaps hoping to write about something other than another iPhone clone.
But instead of tackling the rumors head on — or at least addressing the fiscal problems that make stories about the need for a WiMax white knight sound credible — Sprint CEO Dan Hesse whiffed during his keynote, talking only about how great WiMax is before sprinting to a meeting room, with no press Q&A and nothing more than a “coming soon” slide to serve as the big Xohm news of the day. Poor Xohm President Barry West then had to spend the better part of Tuesday and Wednesday fending off increasingly aggressive questions about launch dates, investments and partnerships. A Tuesday evening Xohm press reception got off to a chilly start when West ended his welcoming remarks with a bit of a snarly warning about not asking questions he couldn’t answer.
(So of course we waited all of 10 seconds to ask him when the partnership would be announced. Graciously, West did continue to answer questions he could answer, such as one about what was causing the biggest delays — “Backhaul,” West said, claiming it was hard to find enough tech types with microwave experience to quickly set up tower sites.)
After WiMax took a few lumps from Vodaphone CEO Arun Sarin — who said during his Wednesday keynote that LTE should be the unifying 4G standard — West came out swinging during an afternoon Xohm update, saying he agreed there should be one 4G wireless standard — “but why bother with a standard [LTE] that isn’t finished? Let’s go with WiMax,” he said, gettting a laugh from the audience.
Then responding to a question about whether or not Sprint had the resources to go it alone on Xohm, West said: “Is [Sprint] healthy enough? Yeah, you bet it is.”
But if that is true, then why didn’t Hesse say that up front? Even if there are some advanced negotiations that prompted the impromptu news freeze, a bold bluff couldn’t hurt any more than the confusing appearance of lots of Xohm sizzle (snappy black outfits, a sizeable show-floor booth, lots of branding, some TV ad previews) without any steak to back it all up. Attendees from Xohm hardware partners and even some black-clad Xohm workerbees grumbled or shook their heads, wondering why there was no big announcement to match the buildup.
Maybe we’ll hear more soon, maybe not. But for WiMax backers, there weren’t a lot of smiles in Vegas this week, despite new products like Nokia’s WiMax tablet. In a briefing Wednesday with Motorola senior vice president Fred Wright (one of the leaders of Moto’s WiMax ship), Wright told us there was a “lot of momentum” behind Sprint and Clearwire, but later in the interview some frustration surfaced.
“Clearly, [Xohm] is very important to us,” Wright said. “But it isn’t going to make or break our WiMax business.”