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Live from IFA Berlin: New Tech in the Old World

If the maniacal zoo every year of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is Disneyland for adults, then IFA Berlin is Christmas in August.
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People try Samsung ATIVsmart PCs during a media preview at the Samsung stand at the IFA consumer electric fair in Berlin, Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
People try Samsung ATIVsmart PCs during a media preview at the Samsung stand at the IFA consumer electric fair in Berlin, Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

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

(Except for the Stille Nacht part. There is nothing even remotely silent here...)

IFA Berlin is basically the European version of CES. Or vice versa. But it's 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 degree, when you've seen one mega-humungous tech trade show, you've seen them all. But there are differences. Most notable is being surrounded by signs for things like, "Unterhaltungselektronik" (consumer electronics, of course). Still, one does appreciate how thoughtful the rest of the well-educated world is, graciously learning English solely to make American travelers feel so much more comfortable. But of course, having a common language helps everyone when dealing with those 50 countries.

The undertaking is daunting. The show is spread out more 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 a lot 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 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 starting 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 know you're not in Kansas anymore (or Las Vegas). IFA Berlin is its own animal.

The show doesn't officially start until Friday, but it's 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 world), 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 major presence. A lot 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, of course, and now is 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 part of the user base will work on Window 8 RT for tablets and Windows Phones (with a similar operating system) before upgrading to Windows 8 professional desktop, so there will be a lot of built-in familiarity. Certainly there are issues, but that's for the future to discover. What's not uncertain is that there is 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 new product that, on the surface, is a basic 12-inch "notebook," the XPS Duo 12, running the desktop version of Window 8. But if you "flip" this screen and fold it, it turns into a tablet. Though it's definitely bigger and thicker than other tablets, it was surprisingly quite thin, regardless. And yet it's an actual notebook running regular Windows 8 -- but also 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 an impressive 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. Along with Microsoft's previously announced Surface tablets and those from other companies, if the Windows software lives up to the hardware, it could be notable, and an issue for Android. It's a big question, of course, 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 one of the few products I've seen that appears to live up to that. An iPad was dropped 5 feet and kept on working. (It's rated for 6.5 feet.) The is unobtrusive, looking like any case. Plus, it's waterproof down to 6 feet. Their additional accessory, called the "Lifeproof Lifejacket," is definitely bulky -- it's only something you'd use if you 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 that, too, with my handheld -- though it would crash into little pieces. This kept right on running. And if it falls in water, it would float. Actually, that doesn't do it justice -- with both the Lifeproof case and Lifejacket, it is rated crash-proof if dropped from a five-story building. The Lifeproof case retails for $80. The Lifejacket is an additional $50.

Parallels Desktop is another intriguing product. Simply put, you install the program on a Mac, and it will let you 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 fact, using Parallels, you can run Mountain Lion, Snow Leopard, Windows 8, Windows 7, and more... all at the same time. All seamlessly. Furthermore, you can move all your Windows applications and files onto a Mac. It's not a new product -- they already have over 3 million users, but they have some new features upcoming and are trying to create a greater presence.

One of my very favorite, little-known companies is also at IFA Berlin -- Stream TV Networks, which makes a technology called Ultra-D. This is a company I came across two years ago that was already making 3D-TV without glasses that actually 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 close to 3D with glasses, but Ultra-D does an impressive job... and can even let you adjust how much 3D quality you want (more "pop" is less crisp, less "pop" is clearer). What the company is now announcing are two things. The first is that they can convert HD resolution into 4K, which is an upcoming, potential standard of unprecedented high 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's 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 picture 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 focus on 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 didn't work right away, 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 will steam food, boil, fry, and blend. You don't actually use it on a stovetop -- it's electric, of course, and includes a timer and can also be used as a slow cooker. There's even an optional, food-processor-like chopping attachment that can help you become a "Chef of the Future," not unlike the classic Jackie Gleason sketch on The Honeymooners.

And Smart TVs... well, I can't even start. It's almost sensory overload. LG has a model that's Wi-Fi ready, allows for Video on Demand, social networking direct access, a Home Dashboard of options, Wi-Fi access to your iPhone or iPad, and the ability 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 much more), plus news, weather, and on and on and on and on. Philips showed its own Smart TV, and they did much of the same, as well as an "auto-payment" feature for Video on Demand that simplifies the process. 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 know about this new-fangled Internet thingee and didn't know if there was actually a future for making money in it? I believe the proper response then and now is -- Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!! In just four years, look at what this overwhelming world has become. And you know that this kind of stuff doesn't pop up overnight, let alone in four years, but takes a great many years to develop.

And it's all still developing. This technology and more. And all this 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 am hoping to make it back. I don't mean back home to Los Angeles. I mean back to my hotel...

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