Tech companies do battle via tablets and smartphones at Berlin electronics fair

Internationale Funkausstellung, the world's biggest electronics fair, opens in Berlin tomorrow, and top tech companies will be vying for top-dog stature.

Thomas Peter/Reuters
A man holds a Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 during press day at the IFA consumer electronics fair in Berlin, Sept. 1. The IFA consumer electronics and home appliances fair will open its doors to the public tomorrow.

Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA), the world's biggest, oldest electronics and home appliances fair, is opening in Berlin tomorrow, providing a stage for some of the technology world's most bitter rivalries.

There is the war of the tablet makers, pitching Sony, Samsung, Motorola, and all the other producers of would-be iPad competitors against market leader Apple. There is the battle of the smartphone manufacturers, in which Apple and its iPhone will try to fend off stiff competition from Android-powered products. There will also be a scramble in the TV market, where producers of flat screens are adding components like 3D and Internet capability.

At a fair this size it can be hard to stand out.

“With 1,441 exhibitors, we may have a couple fewer than the CES trade show in Las Vegas,” says Roland Stehle, spokesman for the German Association for Entertainment and Communications Electronics, which organizes IFA. “But in terms of visitor numbers and area we are No. 1 in the world, and we’re still growing. In fact, we had to put up temporary extensions this year.”

The Apple battle

Apple does not attend IFA or any other trade show. Its market dominance ensures that it can hold its own from afar.

“Take tablet PCs: They basically all look the same and do the same,” says Niels Held, editor of Chip magazine, Germany’s leading electronics publication. “The challenge now is to present something unique. Sony is trying to do this at IFA with their Tablet P, which is a two-screen foldup that will fit into your jacket pocket.”

Mr. Held says most manufacturers at the show fail to reproduce the appeal and quality of Apple’s products, but their prices could be a selling point – at around $500, most tablets are quite expensive, given their limited features compared to notebooks. But Acer, the Taiwan-based technology company, is introducing a model at IFA with a $300 starting price.

Prices are unlikely to drop further anytime soon because production costs are at least $300 for a well-designed tablet, according to Mr. Held.

For smartphones, the goal is faster – and bigger.

“Fast processors, dual core CPUs (central processing units) as we know them from notebooks, and big screens – 4 inches at least,” says Mr. Stehle, describing the requirements for a smartphone. With these specifications, smartphones can seriously threaten game consoles, matching them in performance, graphics and portability.

More models using the 4G (or LTE) standard are on display, and more and more models are using the Android operation system.

Both Apple and Google will launch new versions of their operating systems, iOS and Android, respectively, this fall. Held says this is one area where Apple might be topped.

“Google is winning this fight. Their software is no longer second to Apple’s. But Android is an open system that manufacturers can ship with $500 phones or with $100 models. Android phones will dominate the market.”

The future of television

Televisions were first presented to the world at IFA in 1928, but this year's fair is not the place where the industry will fulfill its longstanding promise of 3D TV without glasses.

Although Toshiba offers a notebook and LG a smartphone with 3D video you can watch with the naked eye, both use technology that works for a single viewer only and is impractical for a large flat screen TV. Manufacturers are continuing to develop such devices, although they are unlikely to find many buyers.

Meanwhile, the market for 3D TVs that require glasses is growing slowly, but steadily – about 24 million units will be shipped globally this year, says research firm DisplaySearch, accounting for 11 percent of the flat-panel TV market. Last year, only 4.2 million units were sold worldwide.

Making the Internet accessible via the living room television has been promised for an equally long time, and here, Stehle says, progress will be evident at IFA.

Like smartphones, apps seem to be a decisive factor. “Apps and widgets, small pieces of software that require only one or two clicks, have turned Internet access via TV into a comfortable experience,” technology expert Held says.

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