The Writers Workbench
by Robert J. Elisberg

New Technologie and a Cup of Espresso  

October, 2013  

For the first time last year, I attended the IFA Berlin tech trade show. It was quite an experience – I expected it to be very similar to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas but, while it definitely has its overlap, they’re worlds apart in structure and layout.

This year, I made the trek back.

Be forewarned. Like any trek, this article is a long one. After all, there was a lot to see. And telling about what was there is the whole point. So, if long articles are not for you, then go running away now to safety while you can. But for those who are up for it, put on your pith helmet and come along.

IFA Berlin has been around far longer than CES – almost 90 years, in fact, (that was when they were centered around radios, not tablets…) and they have their set way of doing things. For starters, it’s spread out across a huge tract of land among 27 building on the ICC Messe Berlin Fairgrounds. While that can get numbingly confusing at times (messy, as it’s pronounced, seems a most-appropriate word), it also adds to the sense of adventure.

I’m not exaggerating about the confusion, by the way. There was a Samsung press conference in Hall 7.3 – that’s on the third floor. The thing is, Hall 7 actually has three separate buildings. (Why in the world would you think it merely has just one?) Another reporter and I were wandering through, lost, when happily we saw a couple of guys with Samsung badges. Relieved, I went up to them and asked where the Samsung press conference was. With a look of bewilderment on their faces they said, "We have no idea." After a while, my friend and I eventually tracked down where to go, and we led the appreciative Samsung executives over to their own press conference...

But with the tents and booths and music and food carts and folderol, the getting around was merely part of the extremely entertaining spirit of the event.

Part of that too is the oddity that, unlike CES, the IFA Berlin show opens its doors to the general public for a small fee. (It’s a law in Germany if public grounds are used.) As such, this makes the way you attend the show quite a bit different, meaning (for me) going to press conferences before the floodgates open. Generally I avoid press conferences, finding them as meaningful as watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, but if you try hard and listen between the cracks, there’s definitely information to glean. Provided it’s in English. (IFA is caught between two worlds: its past as just a local show and, starting about 10 years ago, its international present and future. A good deal is still presented in German, though the English-speaking international marketplace has largely pushed its way in…)

Then, the bulk of the press conferences behind you, on the first day the show is officially open you rush around to as many booths as you can when there’s still room to do so, and when the PR representatives are still around to answer questions.

That’s because once the public starts arriving en masse on the first day, IFA Berlin turns into sort of like a giant Macy’s. Most press reps leave, and men with umbrellas knock you out of the way to see to the latest tech, families come to make it a day excursion, and kids mass around it all to record their video podcasts. It was a bit of a shock my first time, and not my own ideal way to cover a tech show, but this time I knew and was prepared and, as I said, it was an adventure and fun. Most especially once you’ve figured out how to sneak your way around before the doors officially open, to get an advance look at the tech.

And getting to the latest tech is what IFA Berlin is all about. Last year, I described the difference between it and CES as, “While January's CES tends to show the direction the tech industry is heading for the year, IFA Berlin gives a greater sense of innovation, providing a focus on what's developing and could be next.” As such, you tend to see a great deal more home consumer electronics. Or "Unterhaltungselektronik," as we like to say.

Indeed, throughout IFA you see the words and think you might need an eye exam, or are having a stroke. A display for “Kaffeevollautomaten” stops you for a moment, until you more comfortingly see all the high-tech coffeemakers.

(And there are a LOT of coffeemakers. Or to be more accurate: espresso machines. This is a big deal here. You don’t mess around with espresso. Not only is there an ocean of them, but they’ve become so high-tech advanced it would impress Captain Kirk.)

There are 1,500 exhibitors here, from 70 countries. What I found intriguing is that – at least this year – the innovation was far more in the home appliance end rather than with what usually gets the attention, computer-related products. In computerworld, with a few exceptions (more on that latter), it seemed more status quo – impressive products, to be sure, but not as much taking you to the next level.

But with home appliances – that boring land of white – it was fascinating to see how technology has invaded that land.

Companies like Siemens, Miele, Philips, and Bosch for starters took this once-perfunctory world and turned it into a lesson on creativity. I know that talk of dishwashers and refrigerators tend to make one’s eyes glaze over, unless you’re an anal-retentive clean freak, but wandering amongst them at IFA often seemed like you were in a modern art museum. Combine that with high tech, and it could seem otherworldly.

Consider, after all:

Miele had, of all things, a solar dryer and dishwasher. No, don’t worry, it wasn’t something that had solar panels on the top and needed to be used outdoor during the daytime, but rather the unit is connected to your central heating system and provides 80% energy savings.

Bosch had an incredibly stylish electric stovetop with no knobs or dials, but merely touchpads on the top. It was all an impressively clean look, unobtrusive, like just a flat panel, but I was wary since your fingers appeared dangerously close to the burners. However, it turns out that those burners only conduct heat when touching metal, so your fingers are safe, what they call “flexInduction.”

Bosch also has what they call a “super silent” active air dryer – and though hype abounds at all trade shows it was indeed remarkably silent. I almost wistfully missed the thump-thumping of gym shoes being thrown around inside the drum. The front LED panel provided another information for any tech geek.

Years ago, I asked my grandmother what was the greatest invention she’d seen during her lifetime. I thought perhaps she’d say rocket ships or cars or the telephone. Instead she said, “The electric iron.” Before then, she explained, she’d had to stick the heavy, metal flatiron in a fireplace until it got red-hot enough, and then one always risked burning yourself to take it out. (This was a great lesson to me about technology. What’s “coolest” to people turns out to be what most impacts their personal life.) So, with that in mind, you’d still think that something as simple as an iron wasn’t a product that would enter the space age, but Siemens had an entire line of Smart Irons. (Mind you, if they were really smart, they wouldn’t be irons.) Some of them looked so much less like a traditional iron that I dare say my grandmother wouldn’t recognize them.

Sometimes, features did seem to get a bit ahead of themselves, doing things that likely sounded impressive on the drawing board but are somewhat head scratching in the real world. Like Miele’s “Knock 2 Open” dishwasher. I suppose there are occasions when knocking on the door of your dishwasher is easier and more preferable than just…well, pulling it open, but I’m hard-pressed to see how this would be much of a big selling point. Likewise, its “intensive drenching” washer offers 10% improvement in cleaning performance. You’d think that once something is drenched then it’s pretty-enough wet at that point. Apparently not.

But high-tech will have its way, and the cloud has entered the world of home appliances, as well. For instance, Panasonic uses the cloud and voice-control to allow you to access your washer, dryer and stove from anywhere. (Husbands around the world are likely cheering at this point, for all those times they promised their wives, “Yes, dear, I’ll do the dishes and laundry while you’re out. I promise I won’t forget…”)

And even the lowly vacuum cleaner had its innovations. Philips and Bosch both had vacuums that took those devices into new, clever directions, able to vacuum up liquids or clean on any wide range of “all floor” surfaces. (Quiet was big here, too. As part of their display, Bosch was running the company's very funny TV ad, which centered on a test scientist who had to try out the vacuum next to a sleeping tiger.) And demonstrations abound, too – the most popular of which are the kitchen appliances where food is given away (one tech writer friend planned his lunch that way.) Alas, I planned poorly, and this instead is the Philips vacuum, with no food in sight, except on the floor.

Fascinating as all these advances in home appliances where (and really, they were fascinating), I know that it’s not what most people think of when it comes to high tech – nor want to think about. These are commodities. People want to know about The Fun Things.

And there were plenty o’ fun things at IFA. Just surprisingly not as innovative, to my eye, as the appliances. But a treat, nonetheless.

But still, for all this innovation, it’s the personal use “stuff” (the technical term) that gets all the interest. And among some of the more interesting innovation, two devices seemed to leap out from the pack.

One in particular got most of the buzz, and that was the Samsung Galaxy Gear Smartwatch. To be clear, they don’t call it a Smartwatch – rather, a “wrist device,” but everyone else does. So, that’s the convention we’ll go with here.

Smartwatches are a big, new product field that had everyone running agog with Samsung getting into the fray, expected to join with Apple and Google, and some lesser-known folks. (And lost in the hype is that Sony already has its own Smartwatch.) As I’ve written before I don't dismiss the technology, but I do scratch my head about what they see as the big market for this. Indeed, I've seen Smartwatches demonstrated in the past, and they've struck me as a big yawn. (MyKronz was at CES, and also here at IFA, with three models: its Ze Bracelot, Ze Watch and Ze Nano, that provide ze time and music, while connecting to phones via Bluetooth. And there’s another company that sells one called the Pebble.)

But this is Samsung. And this was the World Stage. So, it behooves one to take a closer look and give it its full due.

First of all, there are a couple of technical matters to address. It’s important to know, that Samsung or whoever, everything a Smartwatch does, cell phones do already, and do far better, and most people have a cell phone – which, mind you, have far bigger 4” screens than the 1.6” Galaxy Gear. And significantly better cameras. (The Galaxy Gear camera is a paltry 1.9 megapixels, compared to the massive 42 megpixels of the new Nokia Lumia 1020.) And secondly (and perhaps most importantly, when it comes to “Who is the market??”) – how many people do you know who actually use watches much anymore?? Clearly, yes, many do – but that number is going in the opposite direction.

Also, before still addressing technology, there’s real-world practicality to consider, which often gets overlooked yet is critical for any new technology to be adopted. The Galaxy Gear is thick (about a half-inch), and heavy at 2.6 ounces. That’s bulky for guys, and I don’t know a lot of women who’d wear such things. So, there goes half your market. Its battery life is reported to be one day – though one wonders if heavy use will drain that more quickly. And then there’s how you actually operate the phone: you stick your inside wrist up to your ear. Forget for a moment how silly this makes you look (try it for just 10 seconds), consider doing this for a simple five-minute phonecall with a heavy “wrist device” attached.

Further, the retail price is $300. That will eventually drop, though it’s not the only cost. That’s because the Galaxy Gear requires that you have a separate device to operate it with – and right now there is only one that is compatible, the $300 Galaxy Note 3. Three others are upcoming (like the Galaxy 4 phone), but that’s still few and all are Samsung. So, eliminate from your potential market people with every other cell phones.).

There’s another practical issue: The wrist band is really ugly, like something plastic you’d find on a Swatch. So, you’re asking high-end people willing to pay $600 for two devices to wear a cheesy-looking wrist band. By the way, it’s not like a third-market party can develop new accessories: you need to use this wrist band – because the camera is built into it.

But even without those question marks, there remains that initial question that started things: who is the market for this? This has nothing to do with the technology. To be clear, the technology is extremely interesting. And this is just the first generation, so it will get better. And there’s a growing fitness market that uses wrist devices. Obviously, a lot of big companies think there is a market for Smartwatches. And sometimes they're right. But sometimes they make 3D TVs with glasses. So...while perhaps there's a big market for this – at the moment until convinced otherwise, I wait to be convinced who that is. For Smartwatches to blossom, it almost suggests that Smartphones and tablets and all their features and productivity will go away. Yes, Dick Tracy had his cool, 2-way wrist radio – but he didn’t have a world with Smartphones. And tablets. They might go away someday. And someday we will have later generations of this. But right now, it seems a long horizon looking that far.

The other intriguing product was Sony’s high-end Cybershot QX10 (and 100) – an attachment onto your Smartphone that turns it into a high-end camera lens system. The cameras on Smartphones have developed so much that they’ve largely crushed the small point-and-shoot camera market, which is disappearing. However, people still buy a second, high-end camera to carry around for important pictures. But they’re bulky. The Cybershot QX series is about the size of a big golf ball that fits conveniently in your pocket. And its optics are seriously high-end impressive. It connects to your Smartphone with a clamp, direct Wi-Fi and an app. (While made for the new Sony Xperia Smartphone, an adapter will allow it to work on most Smartphones.)

The DSLR-quality photos it takes are wonderful, as is the 1080p MPEG-4 video. The higher-end QX100 takes 20.2-megapixel pictures with a 28mm-100mm optical zoom lens. (The QX10 is 18.2-megapixels with a 25-250mm optical zoom.) Being a first generation device, though, it has two notable issues. The Wi-Fi connection can be a little dicey and get temporarily lost. And importantly there’s no flash – and it can’t use the flash off your Smartphone. So, low light photos are problematic. That might make the $250 and $500 prices a question mark for people who want to take more than daytime pictures. Both of these issues would be seem reasonable to address in later updates. For now though they seem hurdles.

Somewhat related to this is a product available from Olloclip. These are add-on lenses that fit over the camera of your iPhone or iPod touch. It won’t improve their optics (like the Sony QX does), but it lets you have a telephoto zoom, or a 3-in-1 wide-angle, macro and fisheye lens. They also have just added a very smart twist. As noted with these kinds of lens add-ons, they often won't work when a camera is in a case. And so, it can be cumbersome to remove your phone case every time you want to use the camera lenses. What Olloclip developed is a case for your iPhone or iPod touch that has a slot for any one of their three lenses.

By the way, having mentioned above how the Sony Cybershot QX cameras are made for the new Sony Xperia Z1 Smartphone, it’s worth a quick mention of that phone, since it looked fairly intriguing. Most of what was impressive focused (no pun intended) on its camera features. Even without the QX add-on, its camera was high quality with a fast processor and 3X zoom. And lots of interesting little features. FastSnap can take 60 images in 2 seconds. Social Live will stream your photos live to Facebook over broadband. And Info-eye lets you snap a picture, and the viewfinder will display information about the image. (For instance, a picture of food may display what wine can be paired with it.) Don’t ask me how it works. I think there’s a little man inside, probably a know-it-all who has been ostracized by the rest of society and this is the best job he can get. Additionally, it saves your pictures two ways: low-resolution images are saved on the camera, while the high-resolution versions are stored in the cloud.

Okay, I think this is probably a good spot for a brief intermission. We’re well past the halfway point, but you might want to stretch your legs, rest your eyes, get a snack or take a bathroom break. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

Fine, are we all back? Great, the end is in sight. To continue –

IFA is also the show were 4K televisions made their big introduction en masse. That’s the new standard (also known as 2180p) for incredibly high-resolution sets. Four times the resolution of current high-definition TVs. The problem with 4K sets, though, is that there’s almost no native content that can run on them. (Think of it like having the world’s greatest Blu-Ray player, but only VHS tapes have been invented.) Some of the better sets, though, have built-in technology that allows for converting standard high-def content to 4K in real time.

Panasonic made a big splash with their 65” 4K set, the WT600. It has a decoder built-in that can convert online video from sites like Netflix and YouTube, and convert your photos, as well. Sony and Samsung also introduced their own 65” 4K sets. Samsung however gave some price information, marking theirs at $8,000. (The 55” model was $5,300.) Samsung also featured a “curved” screen 4K 65” set which they claimed gave a better sense of scope. While the picture did look impressive, that’s largely because of the 4K, and one wonders if a curved screen defeats the purpose of having a thin flat screen.

For all the questions about 4K television sets and content, one of the more intriguing announcements came from Panasonic about a deal they had with NHK, Japan’s largest TV network. NHK will begin broadcasting in, of all things, 8K(!) by 2020.

Though I wasn’t as interested in standard HD sets – which are nonetheless seriously impressive, like Toshiba’s Smart TVs (pictured below), with their intricate blending of TV with the Internet, Skype, Facebook and such (something the AMPTP insisted during the last WGA strike was sooo far away), Samsung had one particular model that was intriguing. Their Multi-View allows two people to watch different programs simultaneously. If my notes are correct, it’s a 3D set that requires glasses, and sells for $10,500.

There wasn’t as much a presence of 3D sets with glasses at IFA as in the past. Toshiba had a very good one, but I didn’t see many others compared to before. But then, 3D still has an impressive life with glassless 3D and 4K. The company Stream TV Networks has developed its Ultra-D technology that converts such content in real time. I didn’t come across them at the show (though they were here last year), and I wrote about their upcoming breakthrough set last month here.

Conversely, a technology that had a very small presence last year had an impressively bigger one this year, and that was tablets running Windows 8. (As well as laptops and, to me, the more interesting product of “convertibles” – laptops that can switch to become a tablet.)

Two of the thinnest and lightest convertibles were from Sony, with their Vaio Duo Slider Hybrid, and Lenovo’s Yoga 2 Pro, both which are 13” and come with the new, long battery life Haswell chip. They treat their conversion quite differently. The Sony screen rests on a hinge and slides down to lay flat over the keyboard. The Lenovo swivels 360-degrees, and the monitor twists underneath. Both are approximately three pounds.

The Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga is a touch thicker and heavier than its cousin by about a half pound, though still small, but fully featured for business use. And it should retail for about $800, which is $500 less than the Yoga 2 Pro.

Toshiba also had two models that handle the conversion totally differently – in fact, you can actually remove the screen from the laptop and have a separate, standalone tablet. The Portege Z10t was the smaller of the two (11” and 3.3 pounds). It splits its battery life – 10 hours when fully connected, but five hours for the tablet alone. It retails for about $1,200. The “Click” is the business-centric model, slightly bigger, with a 500 GB hard disk, but a hefty 4.8 pounds. (Though the tablet when removed is far lighter, of course.) It retails for $800.

Among pure Windows 8 tablets, two models stood out. Samsung’s Ativ Tab 3 was especially small and came with a very good touch-keyboard cover. (Last year, this was an added accessory.) And the Sony Vaio Tap 11 was an extremely nice Windows tablet PC that has a magnetic cover that doubles as a full-pitch keyboard. Note that the new Surface tablets from Microsoft hadn’t been introduced by the time of IFA.

By the way, it’s worth mentioning that Panasonic announced a 4K tablet that was quite massive at 20”. Not necessarily something you’d grab and go.

For all the high-end tech, though, there are always things at tech shows that are impressive for being almost retro in their innovative utter simplicity. The kind of things referred to earlier as “cool” not for being whiz-bang, but for making one’s life easier doing things you do regularly.

A few products come to mind.

Qooqoon is a new company (how new? When I asked how long the product has been on sale, the boss looked at his watch. “One hour,” he laughed) that makes a very simple protective screen for Smartphones. But the challenge of those protectors is applying them to the screen properly. Qooqoon developed a system that cleverly lets you place it correctly before stripping away the adhesive to apply it.

Beydynamic came up with an idea so brain-dead simple that it’s brilliant. Their DX 120 and 160 earbuds have detachable cords, allowing you to exchange a short cord for a long one when you need it.

Also in audio, one of my favorite companies, X-Mini, displayed its two newest tiny, powerful portable speakers, the Uno (about the size of a golf ball) and the stereo Max. Both now comes with ceramic drivers for surprisingly wonderful sound. They retail for about $35 and $55.

And the company GGMM had one of my favorite kind of things: multi-purpose devices. Theirs was a small desk lamp, the iLight that doubles as a tablet stand, and now has a speaker in the base connected via Bluetooth.

One last area of tech innovation to keep an eye open for: new model cars are now building a great many features and apps into dashboards for greater SmartIntegration and cloud services. Just remember to keep your eyes on the road.

And so, after wandering the massive grounds of IFA Berlin, after making one’s way through the huge crowds, after being pounded by new technology, sights, sounds and unending sensory overload, there remains – as always – my favorite spot at the show.

Auf wiedersehen.

Note: The Writers Guild of America, West neither implicitly nor explicitly endorses opinions or attitudes expressed in this article. 

Copyright 2013, Robert J. Elisberg. All rights reserved. 

Robert J. Elisberg's new novel The Wild Roses, a comic adventure in the spirit of The Three Musketeers but with three women, is now available here in paperback or for $3.99 as a Kindle eBook. His other political and tech writing can be found at Elisberg Industries.