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Connectivity, tablet computers and smart TVs top the bill at IFA 2013

Technology products should be able to 'talk' to one another was the consensus at Germany's biggest consumer electronics show, but there was little sign of any truly common language emerging…

Photo: Well-connected: the domestic appliance of science.
Well-connected: the domestic appliance of science.

Well it was a big 'thumbs up' for smart solutions of all kinds and good news for any items offering reduced carbon footprints, as well as for those tablets or multimedia stations targetting the European market. It was a 'thumbs down', though, for classic PCs and, seemingly, difficult times for classic TVs and compact digital cameras offering restricted zoom facilities. This, in a nutshell, was the mood at this year's IFA, the annual Berlin-based consumer electronics and home appliances mega-show.

One of the Germany's oldest trade events, the IFA (originally the Internationale Funkausstellung Berlin - International Radio Exhibition Berlin) is increasingly moving away from being a purely TV and multimedia-focused show. It is now aiming to be a wide-ranging showcase covering all the latest developments in home appliances, networking and, of course, media systems.

As ever, computing proved one of the fastest-moving and most dynamic sectors, with mixed messages coming from across the industry. Summarising the changes in the industry, Marion Eisenblätter, Head of corporate communications for Gfk, an international research consultancy, said: "The worldwide demand for computers grew by a solid 18%, but only if tablet PCs are ranked as computers.“ The same research showed that demand for mobile PCs had decreased by 9%, while the market for desktop PCs was down by 21%. Many companies were swift to pick upon these changes in consumer preferences.

LG Electronics, the South Korean electronics giant, was just one business determined to capitalise on this latest trend. Oliver Kinne, Director of Sales and Marketing for Mobile Communications at LG's German division, said: "LG is back in the tablet market. The G Pad is an ideal addition to our G2 and makes our premium G product line more attractive."

The company chose the event to premiere the LG G Pad 8.3, an 8-inch tablet with full HD display. Thomson Téléphonie, a French mobile communications company, followed suit, launching its new tablet families, Neo and Primo, as well as a range of budget-priced Android smartphones, complete with screens of between 4 and 5.3 inches and coming with slots for two SIM cards.

With the computer market in a phase of "tremendous change", according to Gfk's research, it is 7-inch tablet PCs that are emerging as the most highly sought-after items. These products now command a market share of 45% in Western Europe, as of June 2013, while accounting for 51% of the global market.

By comparison with the tablet market, demand for major domestic appliances is somewhat more constrained. In the first half of 2013, demand for such goods was slightly down in volume terms in Western Europe and, more or less, unchanged in value terms. While there were some positive signs in the United Kingdom, Germany and Austria, a number of countries - notably France, Italy, Portugal and Spain – experienced a decline in sales, largely due to unfavourable economic conditions.

Across the EU, unemployment is currently averaging out at around 11%. The figures are considerably worse in Southern Europe, with the jobless totals as high as 27% in Spain and Greece. With the exception of Kazakhstan and Slovakia, the Eastern European markets, however, look more buoyant. Despite these somewhat downbeat statistics, many in the domestic appliance sector seem hopeful that 2013 will prove to be a good year overall.

Sharing in this optimism, AEG, a German electrical manufacturer, chose the Berlin event to launch its new heat pump-fitted washing and drying device. As the system requires no cooling water for drying purposes, water consumption is limited to 63 litres per nine kilos of laundry. While energy efficiency is now clearly an issue for many consumers, it seems likely that yet another new requirement will prove more decisive – connectivity.

As part of his opening keynote speech, Daniel Hesse, CEO of the Sprint Corporation, a Kansas-based mobile communications company, took connectivity as his overriding theme.

According to his presentation, more than 25 billion devices look set be linked via the Internet by the end of 2014.

Illustrating his point, he cited smartphones capable of regulating washing machines, monitoring household heating or controlling domestic video surveillance systems. He also emphasised the benefits of a dishwasher that automatically starts-up when the electricity tariff is at its lowest and a refrigerator that monitors its own contents, making suggestions as to suitable recipes.

Proving the ubiquity of the connectivity theme, Samsung's latest RT Plus range of washing machines incorporate a wireless control facility that can be accessed via a smartphone app. This allows the appropriate wash mode, the number of rinsing cycles and rotation speed all to be selected remotely. Miele, the German high-end domestic appliance manufacturer, was also showing a washing machine with wireless connectivity, while Philips debuted its Wi-Fi-enabled cooker.

Despite widespread agreement on the desirability and efficacy of connectivity, many companies have very different ideas as to how best to implement this technology. Digitalstrom, a Swiss digital network specialist, took advantage of the IFA's future technology zone, TecWatch, to showcase its system for interconnecting an array of domestic electrical and electronic appliances via clamps with device-integrated clamps with IP connections. RWE, a leading Germany electrical utility, had its own solution and launched its proprietary Wi-Fi protocol at the event. The USP of the electrical company's new systems is that it allows devices to be connected directly at the application level.

Yet another connectivity system – Qivicon – was championed by Deutsche Telekom, the telecommunications giant, which, again, emphasised its prowess in networking household appliances.

Photo: Tablets: Europe’s favourite electronic gadget.
Tablets: Europe's favourite electronic gadget.
Photo: Digital cameras: high-end focus for consumers.
Digital cameras: high-end focus for consumers.

Overall, the provision of integrated solutions for tech-savvy homes proved to be one of the dominant motifs of this year's exhibition. The failure of the industry to adopt an overall standard, however, was seen by many as hampering growth in the sector. In recognition of this, several industry initiatives are now under way in order to promote a pan-manufacturer standard for wireless integration. One solution being touted by a number of providers is the adoption of so-called 'middleware', a sort of universal connector that allows different wireless technologies, such as ZigBee, EnOcean or KNX, to 'talk' to one another.

Among the competing bids to establish a standard, perhaps the most significant moves are coming from the EEBus initiative, an association of 40 manufacturers and utility companies. The group is keen to establish a European standard in the sector and, in July of this year, presented draft proposals to the appropriate EU bodies.

According to Til Landwehrmann, the EEBus president, the group had talks with several Asian manufacturers during the course of the IFA event, with a number of them now looking likely to sign up to the initiative.

As well as controlling cookers and fridges, smartphones are making their presence felt in other areas too. Their impact is being felt particularly in the photographic sector, where compact cameras with limited zoom capability are facing tough competition from camera-enabled smartphones. Things are also only going to get tougher in the sector with the September arrival of the Xperia Z1,  Sony's new flagship for the European market, which comes with a high-performance camera as standard.

As a result of the inroads made into the market by smartphones, sales for low-end compact cameras dropped by 40% across Western Europe over the last 12 months, the continuation of a determined downward trend that began in 2009. The growing demand for camera add-ons for smartphones, such as the Olloclip telephoto lens, distributed in Germany by Adento, merely highlighted the downfall of the traditional camera.

Despite the fall in demand at the lower end of the market, sales of expensive advanced fixed-lens cameras, as well as cameras with 20x optical zoom and more, remain robust. Overall, cameras with larger image sensors enjoyed a 7% rise in sales, according to GfK's findings.

On such beneficiary of this increased demand was Canon, with its PowerShot G16, complete with its 5-fold optical zoom lens and a light intensity of 1:1.8 to 2.8, proving a hit with photographically-minded consumers. According to the company, the PowerShot S120 is the smallest camera in the world to come equipped with a lens with a light intensity of 1:1.8 in the wide-angle range.

With connectivity and interactivity the buzzwords of the event, it is easy to see why many were writing off conventional TV sets as out-of-date relics. Not everyone, though, was quite so keen to write the obituary of this long-term stalwart of home entertainment.

Turan Erdogan, the Chief Executive of Turkey's Vestal Group, once the largest manufacturer of television sets in Europe, remains sure of the TV set's paramount role in the home. Addressing IFA delegates during his keynote speech, he said: "The television set is not dead."

According to Erdogan, the TV set hardly evolved at all over the five decades following the switch from black and white to colour - until, that is the onset of the digital revolution at the end of the 1990s. Assessing the more recent changes, he said: "Today it could be said that televisions have taken over the PC. They have become the hub of the smart home and are used to control other equipment, play games and shop for goods."

Among the smartest of the new smart TV sets is, arguably, Haier's new U7000 series. On display at the IFA, the range comes with an integrated Android 4.1 operating system. As well as its plug-and-play models, the company was also exhibiting the second generation of its Android 4.2 compatible smart TV kits, designed to turn any TV set with an HDMI socket into a tablet computer.

Overall, this year's IFA attracted some 1,500 exhibitors displaying a vast range of products and innovations across its 145,000m² of space. The event drew around 240,000 visitors, a similar level to the 2012 attendance figure.

Christian Göke, Chief Executive Officer of Messe Berlin, the event's organiser, said: "We are delighted with the worldwide level of interest that this year's event attracted. We were able to welcome more than 142,000 trade visitors (+1.4%), of whom 46,000 came from abroad (+2.2%)."

According to Göke, orders worth in excess of 4 billion euros were placed during the course of the fair. 

Photo: The IFA 2013: a wide-ranging electronics showcase.
The IFA 2013: a wide-ranging electronics showcase.

The IFA 2013 was held at the Messe Berlin from 6-11 September.

Pia Grund-Ludwig, Special Correspondent, Berlin

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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