IFA 2016: New Tech in the Old World

08/31/2016 07:56 am ET

September is on us, and so again is the IFA tech trade show in Berlin, Germany. IFA is a massive undertaking, though not well-known in the U.S. Think of it like the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but based in Europe. There are differences, of course. One is that CES tends to deal a bit more with products that will be on your shelves during the coming year, while IFA is slightly more focused on innovation. Also, what has struck me is that CES seems to veer more to the computer end of technology, while IFA has a greater interest in home appliances.

This is my fourth year at IFA. The plane has landed at Tegel Airport – perhaps my least favorite airport in the world, that seems to have been inspired by a bus depot, which is okay for handling random flight traffic of puddle jumpers, but far less-so for an international facility. I’m reasonably up to speed with only a minimal jet lag, so hopefully all should precede well. (Because IFA only lasts five days, so you can’t afford much down-time, I start adjusting my bedtime/wake-up schedule each night the week before. It’s certainly odd going to sleep the last night home at 7 PM and rising at 2 AM. But it actually helps…)

It took a few years to get a full grasp on the show. At first, I tended to avoid the home appliance end. But then when I realized it not only was such a vast part of the show, but also how hugely fascinating it was, I began to embrace it. Home appliances are not what I generally write about – or care all that much about. But that doesn’t keep me from being dazzled by so much of the advances and innovation in the field that is here. So, I write about it more, at least this one time of the year.

It does indeed take a few years to figure out IFA. The show is an odd fish. Some of it is wonderful – sprawling, involving, beguiling, and at times remarkable.

And some of it is…well, not. IFA has a dichotomy. Half the organization is split on the side of its history, founded in 1931 when it was a local trade show focused on radio, and so the German language predominates. (IFA stands for Internationale Funkausstellung, which trips off the tongue. Funk being radio, and ausstellung is an exhibition.) Many press conferences are in German only (though some provide translation devices), and a great many press releases are in German, some German-only. And that’s understandably fine – we’re in Germany, after all. The thing is, the show has expanded vastly in the last 20 years, and if you want to be a tech trade show to the world (which IFA does) – the world doesn’t speak German. This isn’t xenophobic, it’s reality. The common language they speak in China, Spain, Denmark, Mexico, Israel, France, Japan, India, South Korea and on and on is English. And so, that’s where IFA’s battle is with its other half, that part which wants to push into this “all the rest of the world.”

Another oddity is that, according to German law, if you use public facilities – as IFA does, situated on the Messe Fairgrounds – then your event must be opened to the public. And so, after three days of pre-show press conferences and events, when the show officially begins, it is opened not just to the industry professionals and press who are there for the trade show (and make no mistake, that’s what this is, an industrial trade show), which is the case with most every other trade show in existence…but opened to the general public, as well. And so the place becomes like Macy’s on the day after Thanksgiving. Only worse and more maniacal. The additional thing is, because all the companies know this, they understand that very little professional work will get done at this point, and so send their press representatives home. That immediately and drastically diminishes the trade show’s effectiveness as a…well, trade show. The result is that IFA is somewhat an event in reverse – it’s not that you can’t do work at IFA, you just realize that you do as much of your work as possible before IFA actually begins, during the pre-show events.

By the way, being a “show in reverse” turns out to be a fine description of IFA – as is the reality of it being on the Messe Fairgrounds, which is appropriately pronounced “messy.” Thoroughly enjoyable as IFA truly is…it’s a convoluted circus. And construction and design is at the heart of that. Buildings are so spread out it can take 25 minutes to walk from one end to the other. But much more than simple distance, which is a basic Einsteinian concept to surmount, it once took me 15 minutes to (I swear this is true) figure out how to get from the second floor of one building to the third floor. Another time, a group of us went to a Samsung press conference, but we couldn’t find which was the right building, or then (once we’d resolved that with the clock running out) how to get to the right room – nor could the Samsung executives we passed who were also desperately trying to find it. On another occasion, I went to a press event, and there were a dozen other journalists outside the building, scratching their heads, trying literally to find the door to get in. (There was a door, but it was only for vendors.) That’s IFA. It’s a pleasure, but it’s a mess. As such, this photo below remains one of my favorite pictures I’ve taken at the show. If you can figure out the rationality for how these buildings are ordered, you’re a better whiz than me. It’s not numerical. It’s not odd or even. It’s not…well, anything that anyone I’ve ever spoken to can grasp. The closest someone has come is to note that if you spell out the numbers in English (okay, never mind that this is in Germany), the words on the left have an even number of letters, and those on the right have an odd number of letters…

But still, for all the mess, it’s a very good trade show, filled with great innovation, very rambunctious, and in the tech world important.

One wouldn’t think cappuccino makers would be all that fascinating, but at IFA it’s like entering a magical world. Any given company may have a lineup of so many different cappuccino makers which each are so incredibly high-tech that you might think you’re on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Pushing this button might seem like it will send out a phaser to blast a Romulun attack, but no, it just adjusts the amount of foam. Simple clothes irons aren’t simple at all at IFA, but advanced futuristic technology. Vacuum cleaners seem like they might require a PhD to operate. Absolutely wonderful kühlschranks (sorry, refrigerators) and washing machines have so many techie-options that you risk getting lost playing with them as if they were video games for adults and forgetting why you’re using the appliance in the first place.

There’s one odd downside for Americans here. Some of the most advanced products aren’t available for the U.S. market yet, which can get frustrating to write about. Not to mention as a consumer. One of my favorite products I’ve seen there for the past three years is an incredibly stylish electric stovetop, such as one from Bosch, that has no knobs or dials, just touch pads on the top. And though you might think that this design would get in the way of safety, in fact the inductive burners only conduct heat when they are touching metal, so your fingers are safe. You could literally cook and eat on your stove. It’s great technology - but for the past three years, I keep looking for it at CES for sale in the U.S. and…nope, not yet.

Still, most of what’s there is or will be for sale most everywhere. And what is there this year? Well, I’m about to dive in and found out. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find where I want to go. And make my way around before the door open officially

If I’m not back by tonight, send a search party…


To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about this or many other matters both large and tidbit small, see Elisberg Industries.

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