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Nov 30 2018

CEBIT Hanover Officially Discontinued

When Tolkien's "Fellowship of the Ring" disbanded, its members set off towards the Grey Havens to board a ship that would take them way out west, to the so-called Blessed Realm where they would live on forever unforgotten. After fighting declining public and exhibitor interest with a string of ever-changing concepts for most of the past decade, Europe's big ICT expo – once a more-than-solid contender for Las Vegas's CES and Taipei's Computex – may not be remembered quite as fondly. Still, now that its operator Deutsche Messe AG has called off future shows at the Hanover fairground, many on the Old Continent may sense a faint glimmer of nostalgia.

The news struck Wednesday around lunch time CET: In a rather impassive statement, the Deutsche Messe AG announced that it planned to "restructure its event portfolio," leading to the cancellation of the CEBIT's European leg in 2019 and beyond. "Industry-related" parts of the event – namely those that touch upon manufacturing, energy and logistics – will now be integrated into the larger Hannover Messe (Hanover Fair), a trade show that originated in post-war West Germany as a means to promote new developments in mechanical engineering, industrial automation and related areas, first with a national focus but subsequently evolving into an increasingly international forum. "Other" topics, most likely those related to ICT usage in office environments etc., will henceforth be covered by "specialist events for decision-makers from vertical industries." The organizers also dryly announced what prompted the swift move – reduced space bookings for CEBIT 2019. The decision comes all the more surprising because only three weeks ago the Messe AG had announced a series of CEBIT Summits (topic-oriented lectures and panel discussions) for June 2019. Whether these will still take place seems unclear, while CEBIT-related events in Asia and Australia appear unaffected so far.

While the timing is peculiar, the decision to discontinue the fair follows a long and sometimes painful decline of what was once rightfully considered the largest, most internationally representative and probably most popular computer expo in the world. The official start in March 1985 attracted more than 330,000 visitors, and after that, the number of 'computer freaks' that descended on Hanover each year only seemed to increase, reaching its first peak ten years after the initial show, when Bill Gates presented the soon-to-be-released Windows 95 and a total of 755,000 attendees wanted to learn what's new. Three years later, in 1998, CEBIT experienced its first small dent, as 'only' 670,000 people witnessed the debut of the USB interface, studied samples of Intel's upcoming Pentium II chip that delivered clock speeds of up to 702 MHz, and listened to a Deutsche Telekom representative touting ADSL. The second and final peak followed in 2001, about half a year prior to the September 11 attacks, when the fair presented the first gigahertz processors, Internet-ready cell phones and PDAs and introduced the then-fresh mobile broadband standards GPRS and UMTS to 830,000 visitors. The following year, many U.S.-based regulars – exhibitors and potential customers alike – decided to stay home for fear of further terrorist attacks; and in 2003, the number of attendees had shrunk to 560,000 – a 33% drop that set off an irreparable descent, first to below half a million visitors, then to below 300,000 and finally to 120,000 this year. But fear wasn't the only motive that kept once avid participants away: Early critics often cited the fair's perceived lack of focus and one-stop shop approach as a reason for losing interest, while potential dealmakers became sensitive about travel and accommodation costs, especially after the financial crisis struck. Moreover, the usually excellent work of the CEBIT media team may have reinforced that trend, as they made it easier to follow keynotes and panel discussions online than it would have been on site. What an irony – the same technologies CEBIT had helped popularize now contributed to its problems.


Fig. 1: The 'classic' CEBIT logo, in use until 2017

However, the steady demise wasn't triggered by external factors alone. Following long and thorny debates about how the fair could regain relevance and at least some of its standing, the organizers agreed on a plan to transform a tech show that had addressed the interests of professionals and consumers into a forum for discussing the economic and societal implications of the ongoing digital transformation. The smart and fitting concept was easy to implement in years with clearly identifiable megatrends like cloud computing or Big Data, but turned out to be problematic if those trends were carried forward or worse, didn't exist. On those occasions, the CEBIT team seemed to struggle with identifying the direction(s) in which the newfound target groups were moving and ended up picking random insipid, ill-defined or flat out artificial topics and mottos, for instance "Digital Solutions for Work and Life" (2006), "Webciety" (2009) or "D!conomy" (2015). The constant seesaw may have confused the business audience the operators had wanted to engage with, as did the attempt to turn this year's edition into a festival with rock bands, hip hop acts, a science slam, and various areas for entertainment and socializing, like a miniature golf course.

Against this backdrop, the new strategy of redistributing key CEBIT elements across a set of diverse events seems like a concept that would preserve its character as a meeting for professional buyers and sellers as well as the technically interested – just before it turned into a carnival. Moreover, the integration of industry-related topics into the Hanover Fair means that essential parts of the show have come full circle: The older fair had first invited exhibitors from the "office industry" in 1950 and opened up a "Centrum der Büro- und Informationstechnik" (Center for Office and Information Technology) that morphed into the now deceased ICT expo in 1970

Here at TechCommunity, we bid a fond farewell to the world's oldest, longest-running and temporarily most interesting computer-related exhibition and trade fair. Rest in peace, CEBIT.


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