Faced with falling visitor numbers, CeBIT has been desperate to revamp, moving from consumer tech to business solutions and all the buzzwords in between. But, this year the fair fails to impress, Zulfikar Abbany reports.
The moment things turned was when Dr. Sebastian Broecker of Deutsche Flugsicherung, the company in charge of air traffic control in Germany, mentioned the latest Barbie doll. There he was on a panel with German Greens EU parliamentarian, Jan Philipp Albrecht, and Roger Strukhoff, executive director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, talking about data security in the age of the Internet of Things, privacy and…Barbie.
And they all started to nod.
"The new Barbie doll was hacked two weeks after it hit the market," said Broecker. "We can't have that!"
The Internet-connected doll fell ill rather quickly after release, revealing vulnerable authentication and encryption protocols. Hackers could monitor communications sent from it to its manufacturer, Mattel, raising all kinds of concerns for the children who play with Barbie.
"Perhaps it was bad design by intention," said Albrecht, with a laugh. He was joking, obviously.
Then Strukhoff chimed in: "Just because you're not paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you."
Jan Philipp Albrecht, who made the keynote speech, seemed to be speaking directly to US-based firms, such as Google, Facebook and Apple, when he effectively said: you come to our house, you play by our rules.
Albrecht says it's getting harder to distinguish between public and private actors when it comes to data privacy, and there are clear differences between expectations for privacy on both sides of the Atlantic. But those expectations are the same among consumers.
"They don't want to face arbitrary discrimination or be subject to fraud or ID theft," says Albrecht.
The commission in force
Elsewhere other members of the Brussels set were in effect. Günther Oettinger, the commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, held the keynote speech at CeBIT Global Conferences.
Oettinger is keen for Europe to avoid the mistakes it has made with 4G LTE. Its rollout has been slow and unstrategic.
He sees new 5G mobile technology as integral to the success of the European Union's planned Single Digital Market.
It's a point he's made tirelessly since taking on his job at the commission. He pushed his 5G agenda at the 2015 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and again at the same event this year.
In a hall dedicated to data centers, it is hard not to feel CeBIT is struggling. The exhibitors are not only the same as last year, but their props are, too.
And while there is a healthy mix of people in suits and teenagers in runners, the atmosphere is not one of inspiration.
The halls lack color and energy. Even in the youth and career oriented Hall 11 staff at various stalls look up expectantly, as if to say, "Hello, please talk to me!" Whereas at last year's CeBIT visitors had to stand in line.
Christopher Ritter, a security consultant, put on a mid-morning "livehacking" spectacle which was interesting, but no real sparkler.
Even in Hall 11, where a mock boat awaits startup tech firms hoping to make a pitch, there was hardly anyone to hear their groundbreaking, problems-solving ideas.
A handful of bored-looking "suits" pretend to listen as the person pitching up front licks his lips awkwardly. Sometimes they laugh as the next pitcher drops his catch-phrase "If you're honest..." for the umpteenth time. But you get the feeling it's more nerves than anything else, because the audience, as sparse as it is, is populated almost entirely by other pitchers waiting for their own ten minutes of talk time. So who exactly are they pitching to and why?"
One highlight, though, is at the Developer Forum in the same hall. Golo Roden, founder of The Native Web, gave a spirited, impromptu short history of programming languages, starting with "Lisp." Roden says Lisp, which was first developed in 1958, remains one of the most influential languages, and is well suited to machine learning, or artificial intelligence, as we've come to know and love it. And lo and behold, that's where the biggest audience was.