Mainland turnout helps maintain CeBIT optimism

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 March, 2003, 12:00am

The world's largest high-technology fair, CeBIT, threw open its doors in Hanover last week, with participants hoping to rekindle consumer fascination with new gadgets amid a tentative recovery in the sector.

More than 600,000 visitors are expected to have swarmed the 363,000 square metres of display and conference space by the time the fair ends tomorrow night, down by about 10 per cent from last year.

At least 6,500 companies, from 49 countries, are exhibiting their wares, organisers said - about 750 fewer firms than took part last year. Some of the most visible regulars from previous years, including Ericsson and Adobe Software, have failed to show this year.

Global tensions and enduring economic gloom have robbed the telecommunications and information technology industries of much-needed momentum as they emerge from a bitter downturn.

However, the drop in numbers was balanced to some degree by a sharp increase in exhibitors from Greater China. As usual, Taiwan leads the Asian contingent, with 655 exhibitors, up from 589 last year. While Hong Kong dropped by just one to 97, China's official numbers nearly doubled to 114, from 63 a year ago.

Elsewhere in Asia, numbers were only slightly down, with Japan, Singapore and Thailand all seeing a small drop. Malaysia was the only notable success, with its official numbers up to 27 from 23.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder opened the fair on a hopeful note, saying the information technology industry was on the verge of recovery.

'CeBIT shows that following a necessary and difficult period of adaptation, the IT industry will return to a path of growth,' he said.

Mr Schroeder warned that a war in the Middle East would harm that recovery, but called for investments in education and training to prepare for the new technological world.

'Our schools of higher learning must make science and engineering programmes more attractive for students,' he said.

This year's event has been dominated by Europe's third generation mobile phone carriers, the handset vendors who will supply them, and the wireless network developers they will compete with.

There are also pushes for technology successes such as digital cameras, DVD players and game consoles that have managed to find a place in shrinking budgets. Cost-cutters include open-source software and voice-over IP.

But industry experts say practical, useful tools have taken the place of fancy bells and whistles amid the economic downturn.

'Customers no longer want hot boxes and cool technology,' said Joerg Menno Harms, chairman of HP Deutschland. 'Everybody has to cut costs.'

He said business clients in particular needed technological investments that would pay off quickly.

Take Hewlett Packard, which announced a new venture into printing services based on telling companies how much they can save per page.

'The big theme is return on investment, which comes from the current economic climate,' senior vice-president Bernard Meric said. 'It is hard to come in and just sell nice hot boxes.'

The company also released a combined printer-scanner-copier, the PSC1210, which makes no great technological leaps but is sleek and small enough to cut the clutter and wires in your computer nook.

On the phone front, Nokia concentrated on the present generation of phones in its product launches, showing off its Nokia 3300, equipped to play MP3 tunes on existing networks. The 3300 will be available in the second quarter for 250 euros (about HK$2,105) to 350 euros.

Sony Ericsson is touting the T610, which simplifies the taking and sending of pictures by MMS down to five button pushes.

'It is fine to offer imaging and gaming capability, but you have to make it easy to use,' said company spokeswoman Kerry Matheson.

Siemens and the Dutch company Alva unveiled what they said was the first mobile phone for the blind. It uses a strip of moving dots that form Braille letters so people can read the phone display.

The biggest buzz is for Wi-Fi, the short-range radio networks that are allowing the public wireless Internet access in growing numbers of cafes and airports.

Computer makers such as Palm and HP are counting on new hand-held personal digital assistants with wireless connections to help pull the industry out of a three-year slump.