Cebit is the largest computer trade fair in the universe - unless, that is, other civilisations on other planets have exceeded the Germans in logistics and organisation.
The pre-eminence of Cebit is usually disputed by US vendors, which claim that Comdex/Fall is the biggest and the best, but over 800,000 people will have visited the vast Messe conference centre in Hanover, which this year had a total of 26 halls.
In recent years, Cebit has become more international and vendors have chosen it to make worldwide announcements. That, in itself, shows that it?s not just a German show any more. This year, three of the main themes were networked computers, mobile communications and Intel's newest architectures.
As if to underline Cebit's new international status, the two most influential PC players, Intel and Microsoft, chose the eve of the show to make an announcement about the reference platform for their NetPC, a would-be de facto standard to rival the Oracle/Sun network computer. The specification for a NetPC is intended to make the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a PC less for large corporations by preventing end users from opening the case or messing around with the configuration of a machine.
While it would be wrong to describe this announcement as a knee-jerk reaction to Oracle?s vision of NCs, the emphasis that the Wintel axis currently put on TCO - also a great selling point for the NC - show that Oracle chief Larry Ellison has, at least, put the two giants on the defensive.
But if Ellison is setting the agenda for change, both Microsoft and Intel have a mass of support for the NetPC. According to Microsoft, over 120 different PC manufacturers have looked at the reference design and we can expect to see machines within the next six weeks.
The other big theme at Cebit 97 surrounded telecommunications and the convergence of data and computing. Most of the technology on show was GSM-based, highlighting a big difference between the US and Germany. While delegates to Comdex/Fall could not use their GSM mobile phones because the US has lagged far behind the rest of the world adopting this standard, it was used heavily at Cebit to allow delegates and visitorsw to keep in touch with the world outside Hanover.
The battle for the mobile market was on at the show. Ericsson, Nokia and Motorola are the main GSM protagonists and they vied with each other to show better products, organise better parties and give away more freebies to the visitors. The show opened with Dancall Telecom hoping to bridge the gap between the US and the GSM world with the introduction of a World ,which supports both GSM900 and the US' favoured PCS 1900 standards. The dual band device could provide a bridge until the time when GSM comes of age in the US.
Mobile computing depends upon standards and there was a flurry of announcements from different players in the PC card (PCMCIA) field. A programme called MDI (Mobile Data Initiative) attracted a number of big vendors including Ericsson, IBM, Nokia, Compaq, Toshiba, Microsoft, Intel and others to push their products and offerings.
According to market research company Dataquest, Europe has a GSM voice subscriber base of 19 million, estimated to rise to 66 million by 2000. But only one in 50 of these GSM subscribers use the data facilities, leaving a gap that PC Card (PCMCIA) manufacturers can plug.
A host of vendors including TDK, Xircom and Motorola showed existing products or speculated on future card products, which will offer GSM facilities. In TDK?s case, it is rumoured to have a joint ISDN/GSM offering in the wings.
Also prominent at the show was Intel's MMX technology. It was almost impossible to avoid seeing Pentium MMX machines and many vendors were demonstrating boxes using the Klamath or Pentium II daughtercard. They included Olivetti, Apricot, Siemens and many others, in readiness for the official Intel launch of the Pentium II on 5 May. But behind the scenes, many of these vendors acknowledged there were difficulties with Intel?s new designs.
Designing a system to take the Pentium II is difficult, according to many vendors we spoke to. The heat sink on the back of the daughtercard is massive and one manufacturer said it had to fit a fan to the top of the processor card to help heat dissipation. He said: "The problems with this daughtercard will be as nothing when we start to make multiple systems for Deschutes next year."
The other difficulty with the Pentium II is performance, he said. If you compared a Pentium II with a Pentium Pro or even a Pentium with MMX extensions, in many cases there was poorer performance.
That was underlined by clone chip manufacturer AMD. Rather cheekily, its stand in the newly built Hall 12 was bang next to Intel?s and was showing a demonstration of its K6 compatible chip running against a 200MHz Pentium Pro machine.
While AMD representatives on the stand claimed it was outperforming the Intel offering, salespeople on the stand opposite remained tight-lipped. No benchmarks on the Pentium II will be available until its launch on 2 May.
Cyrix, just a stone?s throw from these two stands, was demonstrating its Media GX chip, recently adopted by Compaq for a Presario machine. Its M2 will appear after both AMD and Intel have announced their spring offerings, so taking advantage of the media and advertising flurries.
There was no shortage of vendors showing kit running the Microsoft CE handheld operating system. Although there are still no machines available to the public in Europe because Microsoft engineers are frantically creating international versions of the software, Philips announced a low cost GSM connector for its Velo handheld in the same hall. Toshiba does not appear to be following the CE route but instead introduced a very small PC using Win95 and called the Libretto.
If CE products take off, a company likely to suffer is Psion. But representatives at the stand insisted that they have an answer to Microsoft CE and it looked very much as if the UK company will re-engineer itself by focusing on connectivity and convergence solutions (see separate news story).
While transport and accommodation problems seemed even worse this year than before, with long traffic jams delaying many delegates? and visitors? journeys to the Messe, the organisers of cebit are pressing on with plans to expand the trade fair even further. Vast building works are planned for a much bigger Cebit by 2001. By that time, you will probably be able to see the Messe from outer space.
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