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The Importance of Being (At) IFA

Each year, the global consumer electronics glitterati gather in a gleaming and exciting post-war playground for a must-attend/must-be-seen-at convention.

If my clumsy literary vagueness makes it seem as if I’m only sort of alluding to CES in Las Vegas, but actually not – you’re right. I’m actually alluding to a competitor to CES that has risen in reunited and rebuilt Berlin, Germany – IFA, which runs 4-9 September.

We’ll find how big this year’s IFA will be at the show’s opening press conference next week, but organizers already have reported the show being “overbooked,” a regular occurrence the last few years. Just like CES, each year’s show is slightly bigger than the last. For instance, last year IFA exhibits occupied a record 1.61 million square feet across nearly 30 different one-to-three story buildings arrayed in a circle at the Messe Berlin fairgrounds, two percent more than 2013’s show, with a record 1,538 exhibitors, up three percent from the year before.

Of course, we need to keep IFA’s growth in perspective. IFA executives extolls its exhibition as the number one “consumer and home electronics show.” This boast is based largely on IFA’s inclusion of appliances (the “home” part of its description). By comparison, last January, CES rented nearly twice the exhibit space as IFA, 2.06 million square feet, and hosted more than twice as many exhibitors, 3,673.

But it’s more than the amount of exhibit space or the number or exhibitors that is putting IFA on an equal footing with CES. Western and Eastern Europe combined long ago to surpass North America in consumer electronics spending, and IFA is finally reflecting the importance of the Old World’s emergence as a New Technologies marketplace. Over the last few years, major brands have increasingly used IFA as a global launching pad for new products and platforms, such as UHD, UHD Blu-ray and Android smart watches. Samsung already has teased the unveiling of its Gear 2 Watch at a 2 September event (notice my use of the more logical European-style date), and Ricoh/Pentax plans a dual Berlin/New York event the following day.

Even CEA has acknowledged IFA’s growing importance. CES’ organizers will host a UHD Ecosystem media dinner at which “several display manufacturers will be in attendance,” the first time CEA has held even an unofficial event at IFA.

IFA is becoming a must-attend event for any company with international pretentions for three reasons:

First, exposure to the European market. The continent has different types of customers, different energy infrastructures – not just the jacks – and different regulations, especially environmental.

Second, appliances. Smart home ecosystems are starting to explode, and appliances are a key piece of this Jetson’s like connected-abode future. At CES, appliance exhibits, though growing, are largely limited to those CE companies who also make refrigerators, stoves, washing machines and vacuum cleaners, and are rarely found on the LVCC show floor. Appliances, though, have always occupied primary position at IFA – around a third of the floor space in IFA’s lowest-numbered buildings – and all the world’s appliance conglomerates and brands are represented.

Third, unlike CES and other trade tech shows, IFA is open to the public. These German gadget gawkers provide exhibitors and attentive attendees access to enormous, albeit admittedly uncontrolled, focus groups.

In case you can’t make it to Berlin, watch this space for relevant reports in the coming weeks.