The Cebit trade fair in Hanover was once the world's biggest computer technology trade fair. Today, it's trying to redefine itself - and the future of digital tech as Andreas Becker reports from the fair venue.
Exactly 30 years ago, in 1986, Cebit first opened its doors as a stand-alone computer technology trade fair. For a while, it was the biggest computer fair in the world. But those days are gone, Cebit has changed. New e-games, tablets and smartphones are presented elsewhere in the world: at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, or at the IFA in Berlin, where consumer electronics and home appliances take center stage every September.
Cebit today concentrates entirely on corporations and experts, not consumers. Its focus is on the digitization of the economy. Starting Monday, about 3,300 exhibitors from 70 countries are presenting their products and services. There's always a "partner country" highlighted at German trade fairs, and Cebit is no exception; this year, it's Switzerland.
"What we're about is making use of the opportunities presented by digitization, and turning them into successful business models," said Oliver Frese, head of Deutsche Messe AG, the company that organizes Cebit.
There are plenty of examples of that at Cebit. For instance, IBM is presenting a new smartphone app that can help blind people shop in supermarkets; users need only say what they need, and the app speaks to them, guiding them to the precise shelf in the store where they can find what they asked for. It was developed in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It isn't yet commercially available, though.
It's all in the Cloud
The IBM app points toward a key factor in Cloud-based applications: The masses of available data have to be processed in ways that enable new uses of the information.
SAP, the German business software giant specializing in enterprise resource planning software, is having a go at making use of Cloud-stored big data in the context of football stadiums. Individual seats are numbered, so fans can use SAP's new app to have food or drink brought to them, or even to book a seat-warming cushion.
All the requests are relayed by the app to the stadium manager, who has a comprehensive overview of where there are free seats available. Before and after the game, the data gathered can be used to guide the flow of visitors and the resulting traffic.
SAP's complete stadium management package isn't yet in use anywhere, but some of its elements have already been tested in the Allianz Arena in Munich. If the concept gains traction, it could turn into a lucrative market for the company, given that there are stadiums in pretty much every city and town. What impact the implementation of the system might have on ticket prices remains an open question.
US chipmaker Intel combines sensor networks, smartphones, and Cloud services to offer a new app to a business that has, to date, been very much analog rather than digital: Wine-growing. At Intel's booth at Cebit, the company has a display showing grapevines being monitored by solar-powered measuring equipment. Built by the Nuremberg-based company MyOmega, the equipment constantly monitors and analyzes air and soil temperature, leaf moisture level, pH and nutrient values, and sends the information to the wine-grower's smartphone. That means he can be constantly aware of how his vines are doing, even without walking up and down the rows in the field. The app could allow wine-growers to make more efficient use of their time by drawing their attention to problem locations where timely interventions are needed.
Face recognition for the coffee machine?
The German-Swiss firm Digitalstrom, working in collaboration with Microsoft, wants to bring even more comfort and convenience into private households. Using their system, if you switch on the TV, sensors automatically dim the lights in the room or close the blinds to improve TV viewing contrast. A coffee machine might recognize from the expression on your face whether you'd prefer an espresso or a latte.
OK, some people might say this sort of app crosses the line into the wide woolly world of uselessness, especially given that coffee machines won't get any cheaper if they have to be equipped with a camera and a chip with software capable of interpreting your facial expression. Moreover, there's a concern about data security attached to this kind of system: None of these apps functions without the Cloud, i.e. sending and receiving data from remote servers. So it might not just be your coffee machine that can see and interpret your facial expression as you stumble about your flat in the morning.
Nevertheless, in the medium term, there will be no getting around the ubiquity of the Cloud. That's true even for the owner-managers of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who may be a tad conservative and would tend to regard such developments with a good deal of skepticism - or so, at any rate, says Bernhard Rohleder, the head of Bitkom, an umbrella association for German information and telecommunications companies.
"I don't know any SME manager who would be able to secure his data anywhere near as securely as a company specialized in storing data on Cloud servers," Rohleder told DW.
Surveys done by Bitkom have determined that German companies still have a lot of catching-up to do in matters digital. About half of German companies don't even have an emergency plan in place for the contingency that their IT systems fail or get hacked. Nearly half of companies reported that they don't have the employees with the expertise necessary to move ahead with digitization.
Moreover, "in German companies, communication remains very traditional," according to Rohleder. The good old fax machine remains in frequent use in 79 percent of firms, whereas social networks are only used for communications by 15 percent. This could be a signal that many German firms are missing the on-ramp onto the next phase of development of the digital economy.
In order to stimulate a discussion over risks and opportunities of digital connectivity, Cebit's organizers have put a renewed emphasis this year on presentations and expert discussions. This is also meant to distinguish them from rival trade fairs. A total of 2,000 different talks, round-table discussions and conferences will be taking place over the five-day trade fair this year, with topics ranging from data security to digitization of industrial production systems.
"Cebit is no longer merely a trade fair," according to Cebit chief Oliver Frese. "It's a conference as well."