NEW YORK (Fortune Magazine) -
"One of the most striking signs of the decay of art is when we see its separate forms jumbled together." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Substitute "the decay of technology" for "the decay of art" and you've got a possible summation of the CeBIT Hannover 2004 technology trade show, the recent weeklong geek extravaganza that took place in Germany recently, not too far from Goethe's old stomping grounds.
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Is it fair to say that state-of-the-art technology is in decay? We'll discuss the applicability of Goethe's 200-year-old remark to today's technology trends in a moment, but first, for the uninitiated, an explanation of CeBIT Hannover may be in order.
Have you ever been to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas? Did you marvel at the size of the crowds when the Comdex computer show was drawing 225,000 visitors back in its heyday of the 1990s?
CeBIT Hannover is bigger. Billed as the largest information technology and telecommunications show in the world, this year's CeBIT was expected to draw about half a million visitors and some 6,500 exhibiting companies from all over the world.
I didn't count them all -- my ability to count in German stops at fŁnfundzwanzig (25, for those who never got much beyond ein, zwei, drei) -- but after prowling the vast fairgrounds of Hannover last week my guess is that those attendance and exhibitor numbers were only slightly less inflated than the Hindenberg. Maybe the rainy weather and the Madrid bombings kept some people away.
Even so, more tech companies and more geeks than I have ever seen before in one place converged last week on centuries-old Hannover to see the most modern gizmos and gadgets the world has to offer.
It was sometime around the fŁnfundzwanzig-th time I heard the word "convergence" that Goethe's quotation about the decay of art came to mind.
Nearly every company I visited at CeBIT wanted to talk about the idea of convergence, whether it was the convergence of computers and TV sets, of mobile phones and video cameras, or of medical diagnostic equipment and toilet seats. There were hundreds of new products shown at CeBIT Hannover, but most of them seemed to be created by converging two or more existing technologies, or by tweaking and upgrading specs on existing products.
The emphasis at CeBIT Hannover, as I saw it, was not on technological innovation, but rather on integration -- making existing products or technologies work together.
Computer, mobile phone and consumer electronics companies were all talking about the "digital lifestyle," as if they had all been handed the same script at the start of the show. They're all turning their attention to consumers and to the home. In this digital zeitgeist, as described by the companies, consumers can't wait to buy and download digital audio and video over broadband networks, manipulate their media, and consume the bits in any room of the house or on a mobile device. To do so, they'll need wireless networking systems, media servers or entertainment PCs, and networked audio-video components like DVD players and TV monitors.
The next major wave of innovation, according to mobile analysts, will be mobile video telephony and streaming audio and video on 3G (third-generation) phones. But 3G networks aren't fully rolled out yet, and surveys of consumers in Europe, where 3G is closer to deployment than in the U.S., reveal that consumers are largely indifferent to such next-generation services.
In short, the companies are making incremental advances in technology while turning their attention to convergence and integration. The problem is, no one can explain to me why this should appeal to me. All the companies describe a path for linking my TV and my computer and my mobile phone and my refrigerator and my car, but instead of thinking, "Wow, that's cool," all I can think is, "Wow, this is going to be really complex, confusing, and expensive." No one I talked to was able to set my soul on fire with a true and beautiful vision of technologic art.
The first glimmers of WiMAX, a new standard for long-range broadband wireless Internet access, were exciting. But WiMAX products - think 50 megabits per second with ranges measured in miles instead of in feet or meters - aren't expected to start showing up until next year.
And it was kind of cool to see traveler-friendly digital cameras, the kind that fit easily in a pocket, adding higher resolution, in the five- and six-megapixel range. Several telecom companies were touting "mega phones," meaning mobile phones with megapixel-quality digital cameras.
HD-DVD recorders are cool, but the standards still aren't set.
The net effect was that I came away from nearly a week at the world's largest gizmo show unable to think of a single new product for which I was eager to plunk down my pathetically weak dollars.
Sure, it was encouraging to see so many companies expressing optimism about the apparent recovery of the tech economy, but as for pure, unadulterated geek lust arising from new gizmos and gadgets, it just wasn't there. To be fair, I was able to see only a fraction of the products on display.
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There were more than 25 exhibition halls, each one worthy of a half day's exploration, and, frankly, I skipped any pavilion where a majority of the people were wearing neckties, on the assumption that they weren't going to be any fun. It's quite possible that one of those neckties was around the neck of someone who might have explained to me why all this convergence, this jumbling together of separate technologies, is not a sign of decay - or at least entropy - in the technology industry.
Of course, it's possible that Goethe was full of it. The jumbling together of separate forms of art might be, in fact, just the precursor to a new explosion in innovation. Perhaps we're just in a holding pattern, the equivalent of working on the plumbing and the wiring and the HVAC systems, the necessary but unsexy stuff that has to be done before the creative stuff can be undertaken.
But I like Goethe. He once said, "We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe."
isn't a monopoly any more.