If you are a regular press visitor at IFA, the Berlin consumer electronics and home appliances fair, the Germans have a nice amenity for you: the so-called Global Press Conference. It is a hospitality event where work and pleasure are well balanced. A nice five-star resort somewhere in the Mediterranean (Malta, Majorca, Alicante), interesting meetings with industry insiders and a chance to meet your fellow journalists. This year the location was the medieval city of Dubrovnik, on the Adriatic coast, an old city with a rich history. During the city tour the signs of the Yugoslavian war, about 20 years ago, where clearly visible. Within the old city walls you could see destroyed houses, and what seemed to be a rusty satellite dish at first turned out to be riddled with bullet holes; real bullets, that is. And all this within Europe, not in some third world remote area.
As IFA is originally a consumer electronics event, the white goods sector joined in five years ago, after the demise of the traditional trade-only fairs in Cologne and Paris. The combination has turned out to be a success, also because the white goods makers changed their stands to consumers taste, which roughly means more live cooking and more espresso bars. IFA was proud to announce that almost all the space for September 2012 was sold out.
At the Dubrovnik event there was less focus on white goods than previous years; the crisis was showing. Just one washing machine! Still, some small appliance makers took the effort. Ultra-German is WMF, a famous brand for high-end, modern cookware as well as semi-professional espresso (BTC) machines. They are very successful with an entry-level version of their famous high-end coffee maker. Also shown were a number of kitchen appliances in a special stainless steel called Cromargan. It is brighter than normal, less sensitive to stains and scratches. And their basic pad coffee maker WMF 1 is still a design original.
Another very German name is Kärcher, the leading brand in pressure washers in their signature yellow color. As these are more tools than appliances, they are sold in DIY retail channels. Here, the company showed their indoor cleaning products, sold by appliance retailers. An original is the window vacuum: when you wipe, it collects the water in a reservoir for a gleaming and strike-free window. The steam cleaner can also power your iron, and has non-stop steam generation. New is the simplified operation with large, clearly lit buttons and symbols. White and grey colors symbolize cleanliness. A special function is mixing of water and steam for extra strong cleaning action. Of course you need a robot vacuum, and Kärcher offers a self-designed product, not a Korean import. It delivers the dust in its base station. In September the company will present a vacuum cleaner with a water filter.
In consumer electronics, Philips Electronics, the only remaining European CE maker, updated us on their TV joint venture with Taiwanese/Chinese TPV. Philips has been making losses on their TV products for years, despite being leading in several TV technologies (they invented optical storage, their video motion processing is top notch). The playing field (Japanese, Korean and Chinese competition) as well their limited presence outside Europe forced them to make a move. It turned out that TPV needed what Philips has: a famous European brand and top technology; TPV has the manufacturing capabilities and the money. TPV is the global leader in PV monitors and third in flat screens. The JV is called TPVision, and CEO Maarten de Vries (who came from Philips) layed out three top priorities: Smart TV (Philips already offers the most open web browser on their TV’s), smooth user interaction and top-design. He noted the at 60% of customers uses their Smart TV functions every day, for three uses: Catch Up TV (what’s hot, such as YouTube), Video On Demand and social apps. TPVision will be cooperating closely with the existing Philips sales channels, as presence in the TV market is crucial for sales of many other Philips products. Philips also showed a new range of streaming products, all using AirPlay.
Samsung occupied the biggest exhibition space and displayed CE products, smartphones, ultrabooks and a lonely washer, a 12kg top model. Their gesture- and voice recognizing TV remains impressive, and their demonstration of all the products tied together to the TV was hard to beat, because their broad product range. A fitness app demonstrated possible use of the built-in camera, it helped you to compare your movements with those of your fitness instructor, not unlike the dance games on a Wii. The TV offers an Evolution Kit, which allows for upgrading the processor or the memory (where have we seen that before?).
German TV brand Loewe is known for its modern design in the best German tradition. This tradition has always been the main inspiration for Apple. Loewe displayed a new TV: Connect ID. A removable speaker front allows for several colors, a feature Loewe has been offering for many years. The front bends over to the back of the housing, giving a unique look. There were also three high-end sound docks. The SoundBox masters streaming, iPod, radio, CD, USB and audio-in. SoundVision adds a large display and six speakers. The AirSpeaker is more affordable, skips the display and is designed to be controlled by an iOS unit.
A special presentation was from Paul Gray, from market research firm DisplaySearch, and he surely knew what he was talking about; understandable if you have worked many years for Philips. He explained that the TV markets in the Western countries are saturated, and the expected higher replacement rate which should have driven by new features has only partly materialized. Upcoming markets have higher growth rates but need well-adapted products.
He sees content provided in three ways: downloaded, from the TV provider or from the traditional and new broadcasters, and by new we mean Hulu and Vudu and their VOD competition. Broadcasters have the experience, can develop new programming and offer the most consisting quality. Hardware oriented portals are easy to use, but offer less choice and less quality. The most flexible, but also the least dependable regarding quality is the Net. Typical is that Europeans tend to go for hardware portals, Americans prefer trusted broadcasters and the Chinese use the Net, no surprise when you consider Chinese state TV. Gray also had a clear perspective on the way we are going to operate and control the TV. The current Smart TV offerings are too complicated for many users. Gesture control is too weird for normal use, and there is no text input. Voice control needs strong hardware and there are way too many languages and dialects for the industry to keep up with. The smartphone is perfect, it is subsidized and we know how to install an app. But the tablet might become the primary way of interaction: it lies around on the sofa, we know how to use it and it has apps. Social apps such as Zeebox and Umami are designed to use while watching using the so-called second screen; they display live ratings and you can see Twitter-like comments. Another trend is overflow from platform to platform: PC features are pop up in smartphones and vice versa.
A big name in European white goods is dr. Reinhard Zinkann, member of one of the two founding families of Miele (the other being of course the Miele family itself). He is unusual, not an economist but being educated in philosophy and a quite talented speaker. After a global appliance market dip in 2009 of 147 billion, 2010 bounced back to 159 B and 2011 will be around 170 B. However, growth will be in developing countries mainly, as Western and Japanese markets are stable. In Europe the large appliance market is very fragmented, hard to understand for Americans who are used to one large market. Growth in Germany, France, UK and Turkey is OK, Russia is excellent but Italy and Spain are in the red. Spain, as we know from the business news, is suffering a huge housing market crisis, as you can see yourself by the many unfinished housing projects.
The final dinner was held in a huge age-old hall within the medieval city wall of Dubrovnik. The show was nice, the food delicious and the journalist enjoyed their wine as the bus brought them back to the hotel. The only drawback from a small city as Dubrovnik, no matter how lovely it is, are the limited number of outbound flights, which forced many guests to depart as early as 6.30 AM. That was really the only thing to whine about this event, and it was not IFA’s fault. One can hope that all the new information did not get erased by the early wake-up call…