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Bluetooth is dead, long live Wi-Fi Direct – say Electronics exhibitors

Changing technologies and changing visitor profiles characterised this year's HKTDC Electronics Fair (Autumn Edition) with many predicting Wi-Fi Direct will be next year's Big Thing. That, however, is what they used to say about 3D TV…

Photo: A veritable Wi-Fi wonderland: the HKTDC Electronics Fair.
A veritable Wi-Fi wonderland: the HKTDC Electronics Fair.

Despite the high-profile presence of many of the world's biggest players – the obligatory mega-stands from Dolby, Panasonic, Sony and the like – this year's Hong Kong Electronic Fair did not entirely belong to the global corporations. The Fair's Small Order Zone (SOZ) proved a huge draw for many, with innovation frequently found among those companies offering small volumes and lower runs.

This year the SOZ was partnered by the newly-introduced Invention Zone, a showcase for emerging design and innovations rarely seen elsewhere. In a sign of the overall scale of the event, even these two lesser zones were home to a vast array of products, including de-humidifiers, tablets, irons and state-of-the-art digital recording equipment.

Despite the familiarity of some of the names and ranges on display, a number of show veterans sensed a definite change in the air. Ken Chan, Sales and Marketing Manager for Arkon Industrial Ltd, has long been a regular at the event and maintained that the visitor base was shifting somewhat. He said: "This year, there are far more buyers from Asia and the Middle East than in the past."

Arkon specialises in wireless products, with its array of wireless headphones, wireless speakers, wireless professional transmission systems and audio video connection products dominating its stand. For Chan, it was the company's range of headphones, though, that were this year's stand-out products. This was largely due to their use of Bluetooth technology, one of the event's most ubiquitous technical flourishes.

Chan said: "This year, everything has Bluetooth. Manufacturers now have to adopt this technology. Not all Bluetooth is the same, however. At the top end are the more costly 2.4 GHz connections, while the common analogue connections, often used to link televisions and so on to headphones, remain popular."

According to Chan, although the company was still trading strongly in Europe and North America, demand was rising dramatically in South America, the Middle East and across Asia. It was the pan-Asian prospects, he said, however, that drew the company back to the Hong Kong show year after year.

Explaining the company's thinking, he said: "We attend shows in Hong Kong, Berlin and Las Vegas, but find that Hong Kong is the most useful show. Even though Las Vegas show is the larger event, Hong Kong gives us access to Asia."

Although acknowledging the preeminence of Bluetooth for this year's range, Chan believes that the technology may already be outmoded. He said: "Bluetooth is, of course, very popular but next year Wi-Fi Direct will begin to make a real impact. A number of TV sets are already coming boxed with this technology as standard and, once we have the correct chip in place for the headphones, transmitters will no longer be required.

"Even a number of smartphones manufacturers – notably Samsung and LG – are beginning to include this new technology. In fact, pretty much everyone is trying to develop products featuring Wi-Fi direct, largely because of the acoustic superiority it offers when compared to a Bluetooth connection.

"In terms of our own range, we currently have Wi-Fi Direct headphones in development and hope to have them available next year. At present, the audio chips are still being refined, with the promise that they will be small and reasonably-priced. Currently, we are still waiting on the chip supplier."

Chan's view as to 2014 being the year that Wi-Fi Direct comes into its own had widespread currency among many of the exhibitors at the show. Originally known as "Wi-Fi P2P", the appeal of this new standard lies in its ability to allow devices to connect easily with one another without the need for an intermediary wireless access point. The system also allows for higher transmission rates, boosting its appeal in terms of file transference and Internet connectivity.

The system also boasts the facility to connect devices from different – previously incompatible – manufacturers. For the system to work, only one of the linked devices needs to be Wi-Fi Direct compliant, a development that may dramatically reduce the demand for routers. 

Photo: Aqua Ventus: 'fun and colour'.
Aqua Ventus: "fun and colour".
Photo: Tunbow: 'F&B revolution'.
Tunbow: "F&B revolution".

Despite their seemingly looming obsolescence, a number of companies still demonstrated considerable faith in Bluetooth products. Maniway Industrial Limited, a Shenzhen-based audio manufacturer, attracted considerable attention with its range of small, portable Bluetooth wireless speakers. Available in a choice of bright colours, the speakers have been specifically designed for use with smartphones or tablets.

Explaining its commitment to the Bluetooth protocol, Anthony Wan, a senior executive with Maniway, said: "Everything we now produce has to be Bluetooth-enabled. Previously, we used iPhone docking systems but, when the docking system changed, we switched to Bluetooth. Bluetooth offers real quality and it now works with all smartphones. Next year, though, we will also be introducing a number of Wi-Fi Direct products, specifically for home use."

As well as changing technologies, the changing composition of the visitor base was another widely commented on aspect of this year's event. Harry Nanikram, a member of the management team at Amwood (HK) Ltd, a Hong Kong-based in-car audio specialist, has been attending the show for 17 years and noted one thing in particular.

He said: "This year, there are definitely less people from overseas and more people from the Chinese mainland. As, this time around, the event is overlapping with the Canton Fair, I think the overseas buyers may have gone there instead."

Any mainland bias among attendees did not discourage the majority of exhibitors, however. Over on the Aqua Ventus Limited stand, the company managed to draw quite a substantial crowd, thanks largely to its fun and colourful presentation – an object lesson to the many who skimp on creativity when it comes to dressing and managing their booths.

A specialist in speaker manufacture, the Kowloon-based company was at pains to emphasise the fun aspect of its products through its stylish presentation, complete with an artificial beach and waterfall. These proved the perfect backdrop to showcase the company's range of water-resistant/outdoor sound systems.

Clearly pleased with both his product and their presentation, Gary Ahmed Ejaz, the Founder of Aqua Ventus, said: "We are based in Hong Kong and have been in business for 18 years, but we have only been producing this line of outdoor music systems for four years. At the moment, we are mainly selling to the US and Europe, with our products designed to be perfect for poolsides and for camping."

To ensure the water-resistance of the range, the company immerses each for at least half an hour. It's a robust testing regime, but one that seems to be paying dividends – with Carrefour, the French supermarket chain, selling 60,000 units of the company's products alone last year.

With fun products presented with enthusiasm and showmanship, the company's stand was never short of visitors. The proprietors of many larger – and far duller – stands inevitably looked on with a degree of envy.

One large stand that was well-patronised, however, came courtesy of Tunbow, the Hong Kong-based domestic appliance company. Although showcasing a large number of the company's products, it was its range of coffee machine that were winning it the most plaudits this year.

According to Yu Wayne, the company's Marketing Director, the popularity of the coffee machines reflected something of a   revolution in the F&B sector during recent years. He said: "Over the last four years, coffee-making machines have become increasingly popular as home appliances in many of the developed markets. More recently, they have begun to appeal to mainland consumers too.

"With Starbucks and other coffee outlets now proving a viable alternative to the long-established mainland tea houses, consumers now want to have a domestic version of these high street beverages. Our machines allow them to make a wide range of these drinks for themselves.

"We have focussed on keeping these units very compact. With more and more electrical items now competing for kitchen space, there is less and less room for new additions."

Despite this new market opening up on the mainland, the company still sees most of its coffee machine business as coming from Europe. Explaining the difficulties in shifting more units into China, Yu said: "It is hard selling electrical items on the mainland. You need a good distributor working with you, but many of them are only interested in taking on board very low-cost items."

It is very much part of the company's culture not to countenance compromising in terms of quality in order to cut prices. This is partly enlightened self-interest, with the majority of the company's orders coming from Europe. Yu said: "In Europe, they go far more for the look and quality of a product, whilst in China sales are more commonly price or, latterly, ‘brand' driven."

As Tunbow's experience with coffee machines demonstrates, though, the mainland market is increasingly keen to follow developments in the Western markets. While today that means opting for home-made cappuccinos, it seems inevitable that increasing sophistication and rising disposable income will also usher in a greater level of design and quality awareness.

Another object lesson from this year's event comes in the form of 3D television. In 2012, it was tipped to be very much the coming thing, but it seems now to be a phenomenon that never really caught on.

Kathy Peak, a business manager with Profit Peak, a Hong Kong- based electronic goods exporter, believes the market for 3D TV has pretty much collapsed, killed off by a less-widely predicted demand for smart TVs. Explaining the change, she said: "Overall, the appeal of 3D is very limited. Many customers who want to see 3D movies tend to go to the cinema instead. The 3D TV market is now very tough."

With Wi-Fi Direct now getting the kind of billing 3D TV did 12 months ago, it will be interesting to see just how correct the pundits are this time round.

Photo: Will Wi-Fi Direct see the balloon go up for Bluetooth?
Will Wi-Fi Direct see the balloon go up for Bluetooth?

The HKTDC Electronics Fair (Autumn Edition) took place at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from 13-16 October.

Becky Gaunt, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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