By Kim Tong-hyung
ST. JULIANS, Malta ― The IFA electronics fair is still five months away, but everyone agrees that the big news at this year's event will be large, flat-screen televisions.
Unlike the January's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and the IFA 2008 of the previous summer, there might not be enough futuristic products or announcements to spark a jumpstart when the IFA curtains go up in September.
It's in the electronics industry's DNA to push out waves of new products and leapfrogging technologies out the door, while chewing and spitting out the ``old ones'' before consumers barely get to know them.
However, with credit-crunched consumers in no hurry to spend big bucks for the next hot item, this seems to be a rare time when the industry lacks new, compelling technologies to generate real excitement.
At least this year's CES had a distinctive, underlying theme ― the adjacent 3-D television. The biggest story of IFA 2009, which will be held in Berlin Sept. 4-9, just might be the lack of one.
Of course, prediction is the hardest job in electronics and there's more than enough time for companies to add more tricks to their bags. Samsung Electronics, which has been unusually quiet in post-CES shows this year, is thought to have something up its sleeve.
Industry insiders also believe that Sony, Samsung's bitter industry rival, will be unveiling a new lineup of bigger televisions using organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology at the IFA.
However, with innovation taking a backseat in the bad economy, expectations for game-changing products seem rather low for this year's event, despite IFA's impressive track record for product debuts, which include the electric telescope, short-wave radio receiver, satellite receiver and MP3 player.
``IFA is a trade show, which is focused more on market-ready technologies, and we are not concerned about chasing headlines like CES does,'' said Jens Heithecker, executive director of Messe Berlin, which organizes the IFA trade fair, at the sidelines of the IFA Press Conference in Malta.
His list of market-ready technologies doesn't seem to include those ultra-slim televisions using light-emitting diode (LED) backlighting technology, products which Samsung, the world's leading LCD television maker, plans to milk for money.
Although televisions using LED backlighting could eventually win the hearts of consumers, as they use significantly less power than conventional LCD televisions, Heithecker doesn't expect Samsung's new babies to create much noise in Europe before the prices get lower. Obviously, OLED screens and 3-D televisions are much farther off from invading living rooms en masse.
IFA organizers in Malta were stressing that the event this year wouldn't be smaller than last year's in terms of floor space and attendance. However, it remains to be seen whether the show could retain its level of enthusiasm at a time when consumers are less willing to spend on electronics products.
In the same press event last year in the Spanish resort island of Majorca, Christian Goke, the chief operating officer of Messe Berlin, was telling reporters how Sony will occupy a 6,000 square-meter display booth at IFA 2008 and rivals Samsung and LG Electronics will have 4,000 and 2,000 square-meter booths, respectively.
Now in Malta, Goke was reluctant to throw out specific numbers.
``What is important is that we have retained 100 percent of our major companies, but I don't know if anyone is increasing (their booths) this year or not,'' Goke said, although adding that he expects the booths of Samsung, Sony and LG to be ``very large.''
Goke expected IFA 2009 to have a strong focus on HDTV, which will be available for free public broadcasts for the first time in Europe this year, but said futuristic technologies, such as 3-D television, are far from being ready for the mass market.
Better Quality, Less Energy
LCD televisions will obviously garner the most attention at IFA 2009, as companies compete to introduce slimmer televisions sets with sharper pictures and better energy efficiency.
Although still more of a subject for the future, LED backlighting for LCD screens is becoming increasingly embraced by electronics makers in their new models.
In addition to conserving energy, LED backlighting also enables higher contrast levels as individual LED light cells can be controlled to match the brightness specifications of picture content. Thickness has been a problem for television sets using LED backlighting, but Samsung's latest model comes at a sleek 10.8 millimeters.
It remains to be seen whether plasma screens, which became endangered species following the ascending of LCD in recent years, have a comeback left in them.
At this year's IFA, the companies remaining in the plasma camp are expected to unveil prototype products that feature reduced energy consumption and are as thin as 9 millimeters.
Philips looks to be one of several European electronics makers pushing television sets with 21:9 aspect ratios, although the unused portion of the screen going to waste in non-movie viewing might limit their mass market popularity.
IFA will also feature more television sets with enhanced Internet capability, allowing consumers to use their large, high-definition screens to access YouTube, social networking sites and other popular Web destinations.
The OLED screens on show in Berlin will include not only experimental models, but the industry's first mass-produced models, organizers said.
Aside of products, the Berlin show will be reporting on the industry-wide standardization project for 3D television, which envision the Blu-ray disc as the future medium for 3D images.
It's difficult to tell whether Samsung has some surprises saved for this year's IFA, and the company clearly has no intentions of aiding the guessing game, as seen by its refusal to have representatives here field questions.
There are talks within the industry that Samsung might use the IFA to unveil its new LCD television models with upped frame refresh rates of 400 Hz, a specification also pursued by its Korean rival, LG Electronics.
Gloomy Outlook for Major Markets
The talks about economic uncertainty hang heavily in the air in Malta, as market researchers predicted that the consumer electronics markets in North America and Europe will show negative growths for the first time in five years.
The global market for consumer electronics products will reach about $724 billion in 2009, which represents about 4 percent growth from 2008 and $30 billion in additional revenue, according to GfK, a German market research company.
However, the North American market is expected to contract by around 3 percent, while the European market will also show stalled growth.
``Although the trends are still not clear, it's sure that the world market for technical consumer electronics will slow down in 2009, especially in categories such as mobile phones,'' said Jurgen Boyny, GfK's global director of consumer electronics.
The main growth of the global consumer electronic market continues to be generated by LCD televisions, mobile phones and laptop computers, Boyny said.
Although the product mix differs by region, television, personal computers and mobile phones accounted for about 50 percent of total consumer electronics expenditure. About 100 million units of LCDs were sold worldwide in 2008, adding to 135 million units of personal computers and 1.2 billion units of mobile phones.
Flat panel television sales grew 157 percent in North America last year, 94 percent in the Middle East and Africa, 75 percent in Asia, and 70 percent in Europe, according to GfK's figures.
GfK predicts the global market for LCD televisions to grow by 12 percent this year and the mobile phone market by 3 percent this year. The sales of laptop computers will grow by around 1 percent, GfK said, with Asia accounting for a significant part of the addition.
A total of 1,245 electronics companies participated in the IFA show last year, which drew more than 210,000 visitors. IFA expects this year's event to match last year's in size, reporting that hall space close to the same amount reserved at this time last year has been rented out.