Those foolhardy enough to make the annual pilgrimage to Hanover toeBIT and provides an overview of the Hanover show. Europe's biggest IT fair, CeBIT, must always be prepared for a test of strength and endurance.
According to the organisers, 7,000 IT and telecommunications companies have exhibited at the trade show (which finishes tomorrow), ranging from desktop videoconferencing suppliers to mainframe hardware manufacturers.
The geographical spread of exhibitors and visitors is as wide as the technological spread and covers 60 countries. Not only was there the usual representation from the US, western Europe and the established Asian players located in Taiwan but increasingly the Indian sub-continent and eastern Europe outfits are also showing their products and expertise.
There is little doubt that outside of Comdex in the US, which is largely a PC show, CeBIT represents the most important showcase for many companies. About 600,000 visitors attended the show this year and few companies can afford to miss it. The entire event was spread across 26 large halls meaning that a stout pair of walking shoes were probably preferable to an elegant pair of slip-ons.
It takes a truly dedicated professional to actually want to attend the giant exhibition. Even hardened IT journalists ever ready for a freebie have been known to blanch with fear when ordered by their editor to attend the show.
One of the major problems is the lack of accommodation in Hanover itself.
Every hotel in the city is booked years ahead of the show resulting in exhibitors and visitors having to locate themselves miles from Hanover and then having to take a bus, train or taxi journey to the exhibition site. To arrive at a reasonable time of around nine o'clock can mean having to leave two hours earlier with the prospect of having to repeat the trek back to the hotel in the evening.
Exceptions to the rule
Most PC companies tend to use Comdex US as the place to launch new products and CeBIT and other non-US shows to demonstrate their wares. There are exceptions to this rule.
For example, Software AG, which as a German company probably feels it has a patriotic duty to put its homeland first, demonstrated the first public outing for its new server based on XML (Extensible Mark-up Language), the successor to HTML. The server, called Tamino, is designed to facilitate Internet-based Ecommerce transactions. Both Microsoft and Oracle have also committed themselves to supporting XML but Software AG claims it is ahead of its competitors because Tamino can store documents directly in XML instead of having to convert them to SQL (Structured Query Language).
However, there is something of a risk in this approach. The advantage of SQL is that it is a recognised standard in the relational database world while XML technology still has to prove itself. One of the reasons for the failure of true object related databases (see PC Week, 16 March) was that there was no common standard such as SQL to which all developers and their products adhered.
The PC hardware manufacturers were well represented at CeBIT. Compaq, for example, had no less than nine different stands scattered throughout the exhibition centre's many halls plus an additional one to cater for its Digital products. Many of those stands were joint ventures with various business partners.
There were 21 laptop suppliers with booths, including Compaq, Toshiba, Packard-Bell/NEC and Siemens; 62 desktop vendors and 28 companies displaying palmtop computers. IBM, like Compaq, took the shotgun approach and had no less than 14 different stands showing everything from the RS/6000 to its Thinkpad laptop machine.
But it was not just the prime manufacturers and software developers that used Hanover as a showcase for their products. Thirteen battery suppliers used the occasion to show their wares to those companies and individuals looking for power supplies for their laptop machines.
Although the exhibition was largely dominated by the big players, a number of smaller specialised companies also took the opportunity to display their wares. For example, 28 suppliers which operate in the industrial PC sector took stands at the show. The industrial products on display ranged from the handheld data entry systems used by meter readers to rack mounted machines used in hostile environments such as a factory floor.
Another specialist area was videoconferencing which this year had one of the exhibition's 26 halls solely devoted to the technology.
Picturetel, one of the pioneers of videoconferencing, attended the show at some considerable cost but the company's marketing director for Europe, Dave Hooker, believes that it was worth the money and the effort involved.
It enabled Picturetel to demonstrate what is a relatively old but increasingly sophisticated technology. "It is a big budget item for us and I don't mind telling you it cost us $23,000 (#14,110). But we would expect to generate a couple of thousand good leads," Hooker said.
Videoconferencing was once the preserve of only the largest of companies but these days is available to even the smallest company, according to Hooker.
Microphone and camera technology have improved dramatically in the last 20 years while the price of hardware has fallen and its power increased.
PC-based videoconferencing systems are available for as little as #500 but to achieve a reasonable quality the user would need to spend considerably more.
Pleased to meet you
While the products are an important part of CeBIT there are other aspects of the show which are equally important. Over the last 12 months there has been a renewed emphasis on partnership agreements and CeBIT has always been seen as a place where a prime supplier can find a channel or ISV partner.
Attendance at the exhibition allowed Picturetel to meet its European partners and customers and to evaluate the competition. In many ways exhibitions like CeBIT are less about selling a product and more about finding a partner to sell and support a product. It is also a place where companies can view their competitors' offerings which can in the end lead to savings for the end user.
The classic case of this is the example of the two Compaq engineers who, in 1991, went to Comdex US with the express intention of buying the components to make a PC. The engineers found that they could buy the necessary components at prices below those at which Compaq, with its massive purchasing power and ability to demand discounts, could manage. The shock of this discovery led to the halving of the development time for a low-cost PC which the company had planned and, ultimately, to lower prices. It also led to the ignominious departure of Compaq co-founder and then CEO, Rod Canion.
Although CeBIT lacked the razzmatazz of Comdex US which is often used as the launch pad for new products or the sharp focus of the smaller vertical market shows, it remains an important event in the European IT calender.
What CeBIT most often provides is an opportunity for visitors to actually see the technology in action for the first time in Europe. CeBIT may indeed be a strength of test and endurance to be avoided at all costs by some people but very few vendors can afford not to have a presence at the show.
HOW THE IT SHOWS HAVE DEVELOPED INTO CeBIT
CeBIT, which used to be known as the Hanover Fair, is a massive exhibition where the goods on display range from a tractor to a telescope. In recent years the show has been largely dominated by the IT and telecommunications industries, the growth areas of both the manufacturing and service economies.
The attention paid to CeBIT by the suppliers and their customers reflects the growing international nature of buying and selling IT products and the equally international nature of business as a whole. Up until a few years ago each country had its own national IT exhibition and in some cases, the UK in particular, more than one show.
The first major UK IT exhibition was Compec, loosely a truncation of computer exhibition, which was held annually in London's Olympia. Compec started in the late 1960s when the first minicomputers began to appear, bringing the power of information technology to a wider audience. There was an element of internationalism about Compec as there is today about the Hanover Fair but the reasons for this multi-nationalism are rather different.
In the 1970s, when Compec reached its peak, the majority of US companies from IBM downward saw the UK as their springboard into the European market.
Compec was an ideal place for the US manufacturers to either launch or display new products which had often already been announced in the US.
Although the show was dominated by the mainframe manufacturers and their software house allies, a whole raft of minicomputer companies, many of which have now disappeared, were also participants.
It was at Compec that the first PCs, then known as microcomputers, first made their public appearance which proved to be a double-edged sword for both the show organisers and the exhibitors. The major problem was that the micros were essentially hobbyist machines which attracted enthusiasts, many of whom were young and passionate about their technology. The difficulty for the exhibitors is that they were just as interested in the #5 million mainframe as the were in the #100 micro but did not have the money for the former. The micros were eventually confined to their own exhibition space in the hall where the so-called "tyre kickers" could roam freely leaving the "serious" vendors to sell to those with hard cash to spend.
The success of Compec, which was organised by one of the large IT publishing companies, led other publishers into the exhibition field. The Which Computer Show made its appearance in the late 1970s and blossomed into a major exhibition to rival Compec in the 1980s.
But it was the advent of the business desktop machine epitomised by the launch of the IBM PC in the early 1980s that caused the Which Computer Show to really take off. For the first time hardware and software designed for the small businesses was available at an affordable price. The show was so successful that it moved to the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) in Birmingham. But the sheer size of the Which Computer Show was in some ways responsible for its demise. Visitors often could not find the products that they wanted because there were so many exhibitors, despite the best efforts of the organisers to make things easy with show guides and online help facilities. Gradually smaller, more vertically market-focused exhibitions became the order of the day during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Shows like Computers in the City meant that exhibitors and visitors alike were more likely to find products relevant to their business than the endless trawl around Olympia or the NEC. The exhibitions also became more targeted during the 1990s with exhibitions and seminars especially designed for dealers and distributors like Comdef or toward senior management like the IT Directors Forum. In the US exhibitions like Mac World attracted only those people who either already used a Mac or were thinking of buying one. Arguably these vertical shows are of more value to both exhibitors and visitors. There is less time-wasting, fewer crowds and a greater common understanding of the technological and business issues involved.
But in other ways the very tight focus of these events can be restrictive.
The all-embracing show may be tedious but at least it provides a breeding ground for the cross fertilisation of ideas. CeBIT remains the last bastion of the old style show that encompasses everything from the juggernaut mainframes down to the very valve in the juggernaut's tyre.
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