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Live From IFA Berlin: New Tech Within the Old World

If the maniacal zoo every year of the buyer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is Disneyland for adults, then IFA Berlin is Christmas in August.

(Except for the Stille Nacht part. There may be nothing even remotely silent here…)

IFA Berlin is basically the European version of CES. Or vice versa. But it has been around much longer than CES — almost 75 years, someone here said. (No, not with computers. It began life centered on radios.) There are 1,400 exhibitors here, from 50 countries. To some extent, when you’ve got seen one mega-humungous tech trade show, you have seen all of them. But there are differences. Most notable is being surrounded by signs for things like, “Unterhaltungselektronik” (consumer electronics, after all). Still, one does appreciate how thoughtful the remainder of the well-educated world is, graciously learning English solely to make American travelers feel so much more comfortable. But in fact, having a typical language helps everyone when dealing with those 50 countries.

The undertaking is daunting. The show is spread out greater than at CES, covering 27 separate exhibition halls on the ICC Messe Berlin Fairgrounds. (Getting around is oddly more convoluted than one would think.) There appears to be quite much more focus on home appliances — smart refrigerators, smart coffee machines (Kaffeevollautomaten), smart irons, and smart homes in general are of great interest here. But for all of the familiarity of vendors and products, what’s also interesting is to see the variety of consumer devices that either haven’t reached the U.S. shores yet or are only beginning to make their way across. 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. There’s certainly a similarity between the shows, but you understand you’re not in Kansas anymore (or Las Vegas). IFA Berlin is its own animal.

The show does not officially start until Friday, but it has been possible to get some early impressions from the press conferences, booth tours that some exhibitors vendors provide, and the always-wonderful Showstoppers event (which gets put on around the globe), bringing select companies and press together in a more low-key environment.

One thing that became clear is that although Microsoft isn’t here, Windows 8 nonetheless is a serious presence. Lots of companies are making a major push with Windows 8 tablets, and they’ve all been “convertible,” made with detachable keyboards. Very small and light. I can’t judge Windows 8, after all, and now is just not the time for a long discussion of it — the very short version is that Windows 8 isn’t the dark morass that some have painted it. A huge a part of the user base will work on Window 8 RT for tablets and Windows Phones (with an identical operating system) before upgrading to Windows 8 professional desktop, so there will likely be lots of built-in familiarity. Certainly there are issues, but that is for the future to find. What’s not uncertain is that there’s clearly going to be a big push for the tablets. Without seeing and knowing more, Windows 8 tablets looks to impressive — small, light, well-designed and productive with keyboards to run regular Windows programs.

Dell has a brand new product that, on the surface, is a basic 12-inch “notebook,” the XPS Duo 12, running the desktop version of Window 8. But in case you “flip” this screen and fold it, it turns right into a tablet. Though it’s definitely bigger and thicker than other tablets, it was surprisingly quite thin, regardless. And yet it is an actual notebook running regular Windows 8 — but in addition a touch-screen tablet. The company also makes the XPS 10, which is a pure 10-inch tablet running the tablet-version of Windows 8. It has a detachable keyboard and a powerful 20-hour battery life. Lenovo is another company that introduced a Windows 8 tablet, their Lenovo tablet 2 — also with a separate (though optional) Bluetooth keyboard. Together with Microsoft’s previously announced Surface tablets and people from other companies, if the Windows software lives as much as the hardware, it could be notable, and a difficulty for Android. It is a big question, in fact, though the tablet RT version appears to have fewer questions.

Other random, early observations around the grounds and in the halls:

A company called Lifeproof has some remarkable case products for protecting the iPhone 4, 4S, 5, and iPad. Built to military specifications for drop proof, this is likely one of the few products I’ve seen that appears to live as much as that. An iPad was dropped 5 feet and kept on working. (It is rated for six.5 feet.) The is unobtrusive, looking like several case. Plus, it’s waterproof down to six feet. Their additional accessory, called the “Lifeproof Lifejacket,” is certainly bulky — it’s only something you’d use for those who needed serious protection, depending on your work or travel conditions. But boy, does it protect. An iPhone was thrown up in the air and fell 15 feet. Mind you, I can do this, too, with my handheld — though it would crash into little pieces. This kept right on running. And if it falls in water, it could float. Actually, that does not do it justice — with both the Lifeproof case and Lifejacket, it’s rated crash-proof if dropped from a five-story building. The Lifeproof case retails for $80. The Lifejacket is an extra $50.

Parallels Desktop is another intriguing product. Simply put, you install the program on a Mac, and it’ll allow you to install and runs Windows applications. But that doesn’t do it justice. No reboot is required to switch between Mac and Windows operating systems. They run smoothly, side by side. In truth, using Parallels, you’ll be able to run Mountain Lion, Snow Leopard, Windows 8, Windows 7, and more… all at the same time. All seamlessly. Furthermore, you can move all of your Windows applications and files onto a Mac. It isn’t a new product — they already have over 3 million users, but they have some new features upcoming and try to create a greater presence.

One in every of my very favorite, little-known companies can be at IFA Berlin — Stream TV Networks, which makes a technology called Ultra-D. That is a company I came across two years ago that was already making 3D-TV without glasses that truly worked. It got seriously better last year — impressive quality that can be viewed from a wide range around a room… and (get this) could convert normal 2D TV broadcasts into 3D — in realtime, as you watch. No glassless 3D can come near 3D with glasses, but Ultra-D does a powerful job… and may even let you adjust how much 3D quality you want (more “pop” is less crisp, less “pop” is clearer). What the corporate is now announcing are two things. The primary is that they can convert HD resolution into 4K, which is an upcoming, potential standard of unprecedented top quality, with four times greater resolution. And the second is that they have finally licensed their Ultra-D technology to two partner companies: Pegatron (which makes devices for third-party companies that then put their own name on them, like the iPhone) and Hisense, which is a massive Chinese company that is making an entry into the U.S. market.

No other glassless 3D TV I’ve seen comes anywhere close. Toshiba is introducing one (the 55ZL2, if I can read my notes correctly…), but though the image was crisp, the 3D quality was just fair, plus it uses a user sensor, which limits the viewing range, and it’s quite expensive.

As mentioned, IFA Berlin has more of a give attention to home appliances than CES, and one of the intriguing things I saw was Philips’ Home Cooker, from their Jamie Oliver-designed line. (He did a cooking demo at the press conference. When his mic did not work instantly, he later noted that it wasn’t made by Philips…) What the home Cooker is… well, think of a food process for the stovetop. It’s an all-in-one device that may steam food, boil, fry, and blend. You do not actually use it on a stovetop — it’s electric, of course, and includes a timer and may also be used as a slow cooker. There’s even an optional, food-processor-like chopping attachment that may enable you become a “Chef of the long run,” not unlike the classic Jackie Gleason sketch on The Honeymooners.

And Smart TVs… well, I can’t even start. It is almost sensory overload. LG has a model that’s Wi-Fi ready, allows for Video on Demand, social networking direct access, a house Dashboard of options, Wi-Fi access to your iPhone or iPad, and the power to access program services provided by broadcasters (like supplementary information related to what you’re watching, like associated stories, additional episodes, character and actor information, and way more), plus news, weather, and on and on and on and on. Philips showed its own Smart TV, they usually did much of the same, in addition to an “auto-payment” feature for Video on Demand that simplifies the method. It’s not that the TV and Internet have blended, but rather they’ve morphed into something richer and deeper.

So, you remember the Writers Guild strike four years ago, which the studio and network conglomerates forced by offering, literally, “zero” for streaming and downloading and watching TV online… all because they said, gee, they didn’t find out about this new-fangled Internet thingee and didn’t know if there was actually a future for earning money in it? I believe the proper response then and now could be — Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!! In just four years, take a look at what this overwhelming world has become. And you understand that this sort of stuff doesn’t pop up overnight, let alone in four years, but takes an ideal many years to develop.

And it’s all still developing. This technology and more. And all that is just a tip of the tip of the tip of the tip. Because IFA Berlin hasn’t even opened yet. And there are 1,400 exhibitors across 27 insanely laid-out halls.

I hope to make it back. I do not mean back home to Los Angeles. I mean back to my hotel…

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