By David Knight in Hannover
Unsurprisingly, it’s easy to become lost at the Hanover Fairground, the world’s largest such venue, during CeBIT, the world’s largest computer expo. Or rather, it’s easy to become disorientated and set off in the wrong direction only to find yourself in yet another massive exhibition hall, albeit one which doesn’t look familiar. That’s a good way to stumble onto interesting people and ideas, mind, but doesn’t make for a particularly efficient day.
But it’s all part of the fun of CeBIT. And actually, the number of exhibitors this year – around 3,400 – is down on its peak reached just before the world financial crisis of the previous decade. Hence the enormous halls which don’t have anything in them at all.
Perhaps that is part of the reason why the event’s organisers, Deutsche Messe AG, have shaken things up and carried out a rebranding and refocusing of CeBIT. Previously, there were plenty of B2C exhibitors and the public streamed in on day passes at the weekend to snap up the freebies. Now, however, the focus is firmly on B2B, with the five-day event moved to Monday-to-Friday, entrance prices increased and more outreach to high-level executives.
‘Trade Professionals Only’
The move, outlined on Tuesday by Oliver Frese, a member of Deutsche Messe’s managing board, came about in part because of the feedback from exhibitors. It is they, after all, who actually pay for the whole shebang. And it seems to have worked. Everyone I spoke to – and as my sore feet will attest, I’ve gotten around – seemed delighted with the opportunities to network and meet potential clients, partners and other useful people.
Frese told a press conference: “Our role as organiser of CeBIT is to give our exhibitors the best possible chance of achieving their objectives. That means putting them in touch with trade professionals, and trade professionals only.”
And there should be around 230,000 of those this year from all around the world, Frese added, dubbing CeBIT the “UN of the IT industry.” This new, more serious face is much in evidence as you wander the exhibition grounds, with the odd group of fresh-faced students the exception rather than the norm.
‘An Open Window’
Taking use of this new focus are thousands of companies from around the world, but notably from eastern Asian countries such as China (the biggest presence at CeBIT) and Taiwan as well as the UK, this year’s official partner country.
Included among the Chinese contingent were many hardware companies, including the snappily-monikered Beijing China-Julong Automation Co., Ltd. It had a stand displaying its coin counting and anti-counterfeit cash scanning machines, which R&D general manager Cai Hainan told me were superior to similar products on the market. He said his company, like many from China and elsewhere in Asia, had come to CeBIT to gain more recognition of its products, describing the event as “an open window for Chinese companies [looking to expand in Europe] and also for other companies looking to China.”
Hacker in a Box
As you would expect, there were also plenty of exhibitors from Europe – one interesting company I spoke with was Codenomicon from the Finnish city of Oulu. According to its security analyst Ami Juuso, the best way to describe Codenomicon’s product is as a “hacker in a box” – it allows large companies (and, interestingly, governments) to discover previously-unknown ‘zero day vulnerabilities’ in their systems; vulnerabilities that developers have had no time to address and resolve. And by enabling the organisations themselves to root out these vulnerabilities, the risk of the knowledge leaking out externally is much reduced.
The company won’t confirm which governments it is assisting, but given the presence of Howard Schmidt, previously Barack Obama’s cyber security co-ordinator, on the Codenomicon board and its home turf, it’s fair to assume that Finland and the US are among them.
Sharing Codenomicon’s stand was Meliora, a provider of quality management software from the city of Jyväskylä. Managing director Sami Lehtinen said the reason they chose to exhibit at CeBIT was an upcoming launch in Germany, but that they had enjoyed the experience so much they would be back next year: “We have made some really good contacts including possible new customers among the exhibitors – we were prepared and contacted 100 of them beforehand.”
‘Thinking in a Totally Different Way’
Another interesting facet of the new CeBIT is its greater efforts to interact with startups (with EIT ICT Labs choosing to launch its Idea Challenge here on Tuesday). Frese of Deutsche Messe explained: “It’s important to do business here and have the big brands, but for them too it is very important to have young creative people, entrepreneurs, at the fair, because they are thinking in a totally different way.”
He mentioned the 50 finalists of the CODE_n contest, organised by German company GFT Technologies, which have their own exhibition space at this year’s CeBIT. They are all working around the subject of big data and, Frese said, approach the associated problems in a different way to large companies.
“Startups are very very important for the fair to bring new concepts, creative concepts, and at the end I’m sure some of them will be the big exhibitors of the future.”
Germany a ‘Top Tech Hub’
Among the CODE_n finalists was London-based Massive Analytic, whose sales and marketing manager Vigginesh Srinivasan walked me through its product – a software suite for big data analysis in a browser whereby the data is analysed as a whole rather than split into separate chunks.
He said: “We thought CODE_n was an awesome exhibition to be involved with because Germany is one of the top hubs of Europe and an industrial hub as well; we also wanted to meet other companies and competitors doing similar things so we have a better idea of where the big data space is going.”
Let’s face it, CeBIT is never going to be top of the list for many startups, despite Merkel’s renewed attention on the startup scene earlier this week. But the new face of what is a globally significant event seems to have gone down well, and we may well see many more young digital enterprises from around Europe – and the world – checking it out next year.