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Business

Opinion: CeBIT tech fair end may be nigh

This year's edition of the CeBIT computer fair is over. Officially, the organizers are pleased with how it went. But DW's Henrik Böhme thinks that the fair, in its current form, has outlived its usefulness.

Flashback to 1986: computers were not yet a household item, mobile phones were heavy as bricks, the size of briefcases and still analog. But computers had begun to penetrate offices and factories. Electronic Data Processing, as it was then called, was the phrase on everyone's lips, including at the annual Hanover Fair, a general-purpose industrial trade fair that got going in 1947.

Over the years, more and more exhibitors came to Hanover with office and information technology. By 1970, the Hanover Fair featured a special, purpose-built exhibition hall just for that industry, called the "Center for Office and Information Technology", for which the German acronym is CeBIT.

CeBIT started with one special hall, but it didn't stop there. Infotech exhibitors took over more and more halls at the Hanover Fair, until management finally decided to segregate CeBIT from the general-purpose Hanover Fair and hold a separate CeBIT trade fair. The first independent CeBIT premiered in March 1986, four weeks before that year's general-purpose industrial fair.

DW business editior Henrik Böhme

DW business editior Henrik Böhme

Steeply uphill - and gradually downhill

From then on, things really took off. In 1995, Bill Gates personally stopped by to enrich the world with Microsoft's new "Windows 95", and CeBIT's management rejoiced over 750,000 visitors. And the numbers continued to climb. At the height of the millennial dot-com hype, CeBIT was bursting at the seams - in 2001, 830,000 visitors came. But later that year, September 11th burst the high-tech bubble. From then on, the numbers gradually diminished. CeBIT management started casting about for new themes on almost annual basis, hoping to regain past glories. Sometimes they focused more on trying to attract technical experts, sometimes more on end-users, sometimes on game consoles, sometimes on other gadgets.

Competing trade fairs started taking market share from CeBIT. Initially small events like CES, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and MWC, the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, became serious competitors over time. That's where the latest gadgets and smartphones were shown.

CeBIT increasingly became a pure business fair. That's the business model CeBIT tried this year and last. The visitor numbers this year came in at just over 200,000, which is a slight increase year on year. It was a high-quality show - and the accompanying CeBIT Global Conferences featured speeches and panels by high-caliber tech-world heavyweights. And yet the CeBIT has no future in its current form.

Bringing together what belongs together

The problem has a name: Industry 4.0. For five days, the focus in Hanover this year was on industry's digital transformation - on networked machines and products, on data streams and services. At numerous booths, exhibitors demonstrated how the "Internet of Things" could become a reality, how advanced software will control future production processes - and how these processes can be protected against data theft. Missing from CeBIT were the machines which the fancy software is meant to control.

Those will be on display in four weeks' time in Hanover, at the general industry trade fair. Many of the software providers will then have to return, because their prospective clients will be there. The talk will once again be about Industry 4.0.

Participating in a trade show costs a lot of money. It doesn't make all that much sense to have to attend two fairs four weeks apart in the same city. Everyone is banging on about the digital transformation and the networking of things. Two huge segments of the industrial economy that were given separate trade fairs 29 years ago - general industry and infotech - are now coming together on the factory floor. It's probably time for them to come back together in Hanover, too. CeBIT management should consider re-merging CeBIT with the Hanover Fair.