Beautiful small gadgets galore

The 2003 CeBIT show ended last week and, according to a New Zealander who went along, getting from one side to the other was enough to give you blisters.

When economist EF Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful 30 years ago, it’s safe to say he wasn’t thinking about IT trade shows. At the time he wrote his text (subtitled Economics as If People Mattered), shows on the scale of CeBIT, the mother of all IT expos, weren’t yet being staged. CeBIT grew out of the Hannover Fair in the north of Germany, and was held in its own right for the first time in 1986.

Schumacher might well have thought a small trade show more beautiful than a large one if he’d been to CeBIT. The 2003 show ended on Wednesday and, according to a New Zealander who went along, getting from one side to the other was enough to give you blisters.

While small is definitely not a suitable adjective for the event, it was, however, less large than the year before. The number of exhibitors at the week-long fair had shrunk by about 700 to just over 6500, still a formidable number. But former Computerworld reporter Gillian Law, now working for the IDG news service in London, wasn’t dismayed at the decline. Law says the markedly reduced crowd of attendees meant getting seats on trains and in restaurants wasn’t an issue.

New Zealand was represented by a solitary exhibitor among the thousands from 69 countries. Zeacom, the Auckland developer of computer-telephony integration products Q-Master and Corus, stumped up a five-figure sum for a two-person stand. The company says the quality of the contacts made justified the expense.

The event is dominated by German companies, needless to say, with the locals making up more than half of exhibitors. Perhaps surprisingly, the next most visible country is Taiwan with 655 exhibitors, more than double the number from the US. If New Zealand was looking for countries that it might compare itself to, there were seven exhibitors from Ireland (half the number in 2002), 20 from Australia (up from 14) and 47 from Israel (down from 67).

What were they exhibiting? A more positive trend at this year’s show, and one which we might all nod along with Schumacher on, is the shrinkage in size -- and increase in capability -- of many of the products on display. An array of storage devices that get smaller, more capacious and cheaper by the year were featured. Storage demands are only going to continue to grow, so the invention of ever-denser storage media is a welcome relief. Blue laser optical drives, with capacity of about 20GB per disk, are nearing market readiness, and a number of examples -- some working, others mock-ups -- were to be seen. There are fish hooks, however. Price is one. Sony is about to start selling a video recorder based on its version of the technology, at a price of about $US4000.

The other snag is that there are competing technology camps. The AOD format is being jointly developed by Toshiba and NEC as a replacement for today's DVD systems. Sony and others, however, are backing the Blu-ray format. At $US4000 a pop and with an uncertain technology path, there’s a good incentive to let blue laser drives mature before taking advantage of their huge -- in today’s terms -- capacity.

More storage excitement of an even more miniature variety came from the makers of various kinds of portable memory device. These coin-size cards are now reaching capacities of 1GB, which have fantastic implications for mobile devices of all kinds. Some of those were also on show, ranging from the latest Palm PDAs that double as phones, to PC cards that do double duty as GPRS and wireless LAN access devices, and wearable computers.

It might all sound fanciful and far away. But the problems of managing PDAs and wireless devices brought into organisations by enthusiastic gadget freaks are well known. When it comes to computers, most of us would agree with EF Schumacher that small is beautiful, so it won’t be too long before IT managers will be under pressure to implement some of these things.

Schumacher’s economic line -- he died in 1977 -- was that small, localised economic units are healthier than giant, overly specialised ones. That would probably make him an advocate of local trade shows. Sydney is as local as CeBIT gets, where the show is on from May 6 to 8. It might pay to be there to see what opportunities -- and trouble -- lie ahead.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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