Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero opened the annual IT trade fair CeBIT in Hanover on Monday. Merkel used the opportunity to dismiss calls for a German Internet minister.
Merkel welcomed this year's partner country Spain to CeBIT
Chancellor Angela Merkel told guests at the opening of the annual IT trade fair CeBIT in Hanover that recent demands from the computer industry for an Internet minister "were not the solution."
This came after August-Wilhelm Scheer, president of industry association Bitkom, told reporters that the number of ministries influencing Internet-related policy was stifling development.
Merkel shot down this suggestion in her opening speech on Monday. "I think the minister for the economy, as the person who's leading information and communications talks with the private sector, is in the best position to coordinate and develop our information technology policy," she told officials and dignitaries at the event.
Merkel also outlined her government's plan to improve the German broadband network so that 75 percent of households – including those in remote areas - would have high-performance Internet connections within five years.
The chancellor praised Spain, this year's official partner country at CeBIT, for setting a good example in improving communications infrastructure.
But Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero added that more needs to be done if European Union economies are to remain competitive. He therefore urged European leaders to be bold and create a unified digital market.
"Europe has to move forward," he said. "It has to happen now if we don't want to lag behind the United States and other ambitious nations."
Visitors attending this year's show from March 2-6 will begin to see some of the changes planned for a major facelift next year. These include more than 1,000 presentations, conferences and roundtable discussions and a greater focus on trend-setting themes such as cloud computing.
Why the need for change? Over the past several years, CeBIT has been attracting fewer visitors, fewer exhibitors and fewer media professionals to spread the word about the IT industry's latest gizmos and gadgets. And that, of course, has meant less money for the organizer to stage the event.
CeBIT has a relatively long history for a technology show. Its origins are rooted in the Hannover Messe, the industrial trade fair that first opened a hall for computers in 1970. As the computer business soared, so too did Hannover Messe's computer exhibition – to the point, in fact, that it was spun into its own show, CeBIT, in 1986.
Big dip in attendance
At its peak in 2001, the venue welcomed 8,100 exhibitors and more than 840,000 visitors. Then the Internet bubble burst, and the numbers plummeted. Exhibitor attendance last year dipped to 4,229, with just 370,000 people making the trip to Hanover. Even fewer exhibitors have signed on again this year - just 4,157 - and no one is willing to predict how many visitors will come.
The number of exhibitors and visitors continues to slide as CeBIT seeks a new profile
CeBIT has shrunk as other trade shows with a narrower focus have become more important, such as the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin, the Photokina digital photography event in Cologne and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
"In the past, the broad scope of CeBIT was problematic," said Bernhard Rohleder, managing director of the Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media (Bitkom). "The show was never totally focused; it was bit of everything."
Deutsche Messe, which organizes CeBIT as well as the Hannover Messe, has been working on a fix with representatives from the IT industry, including Bitkom. The goal, according to Rohleder, is to move away from the trade show's former "grab bag" image.
Beginning next year, the event will be structured into four main areas: "CeBIT Pro" for professional IT users, who will remain the key focus; " CeBIT Gov" for the public sector; "CeBIT Life" for Internet users and consumers; and "CeBIT Lab" for research institutes, universities, start-up ventures and other young technology companies.
Convergence of private and business users
In addition, CeBIT will give a greater emphasis to solutions – and to explaining these solutions – in a shift away from its heavy focus on products, according to Gabriele Doerries, a spokeswoman for Deutsche Messe.
"In the past, it was really all about hardware," Doerries said. "Today, businesses of all sizes and individuals want to know more about applications and about the computers and network technology needed to run them."
For years, CeBIT struggled to find a way to meet the needs of professional IT users on the one hand and, on the other, to open the floodgates to consumers, often seen in the early days running from booth to booth in search of free promotional products. Deutsche Messe launched CeBIT Home in 1996 to lure consumers away from the main show but canceled the event after just a couple of runs.
"If consumers were an issue in the past, they're an opportunity in the future considering the convergence between home and work," said Rohleder. "In terms of IT, how can you distinguish the private person from the business person? In many cases, they're now one."
Deutsche Messe has one of the most sophisticated trade fairgrounds in the world
As for trade shows per se, some argue that they're no longer necessary for people to learn about new technology and purchase it. The Internet, they say, is just as effective and a whole lot cheaper. Rohleder admits "the Internet poses a huge challenge to trade shows and to many other industries as well." But doing business and explaining new technologies, he argues, still requires a certain level of personal interaction that the Internet can't replace. A trade show like CeBIT, he adds, can meet both needs.
The show's emerging new strategy appears to have won back a number of companies that stayed away in recent years, including the semiconductor manufacturer AMD and the handset manufacturers Motorola and Sony Ericsson. And it has attracted a couple of newcomers as well, such as the Internet companies Amazon and Google.
Consumers will also find a new section devoted to digital music, as well as a number of new products and solutions related to this year's three main themes: "Broadband World," "Connected Worlds" and "Webciety."
Moreover, Deutsche Messe has chopped another day off the event to reduce costs, down to five from a high of eight.
Whether the many new changes, however, will be enough to breathe new life into an aging veteran of the IT industry remains to be seen. Put it this way: If you don't feel a buzz at this year's show, you may have the answer.
Author: John Blau (bk)
Editor: Sam Edmonds