CeBIT in Hannover, Germany: the trade show I hate to love

Jon

Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Feb 20, 2011 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

With over 4000 exhibiting companies from 68 countries, over 5000 journalists from 66 countries, and 340,000 attendees CeBIT is the world's largest trade show for computers and telephony.

CeBIT is also different from other trade shows because it tends to be more “business to business” and “vendor to vendor”, where large opportunities are discussed and deals are created over a beer. More on the beer later!

CeBIT is so big, and has so many people attending, that often exhibitors have to stay in private homes rather than hotels, due to lack of hotel space, and if you stay too far away from the actual fairground, it may take you hours slowly moving in traffic to get to your booth. Restaurant reservations are a nightmare.

Nevertheless, I am “happy” to be returning to CeBIT and speaking at the Open Source Forum in Halle 2 on March 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 2011.

It was in the mid 1990s that I first started going to CeBIT. One of the board members of Linux International suggested that we have a booth there. Unfortunately CeBIT had a waiting list of two to three years just to get floor space for a booth. Companies tend to hold their floor space from year to year, and if they can afford it, use that floor space to enlarge into a larger booth. Getting a booth at CeBIT is made even more complicated for first-time exhibitors in the United States simply due to the complexity of setting up a booth, getting translators, shipping trade show goods through customs and other things that a lot of US based events do not experience.

Booths for large companies at CeBIT are often two stories tall, with exhibits on the first floor and conference rooms with a lounge and "refreshments" on the second floor to stimulate quiet business deals with serious customers.

Fortunately CeBIT has an affiliate “Hannover Fairs USA”, and they offered a turn-key booth scenario at a reasonable price that allowed Linux International to have a presence, and to investigate what other things could be done at CeBIT in following years. CeBIT also had other "country pavilions" to make it easier for foreign companies to exhibit.

That first year we had a very simple booth, where we gave away copies of magazines and CD-ROMs with various distributions of Free Software on them. While the booth was “simple”, it was quite nice. It had a small storage area in the back that allowed us to store magazines, CDs and personal items out of site, and the reasonable price that was charged also included electricity and a phone hook-up (this was before omnipresent cell-phones).

Helping me staff the Linux International booth was Ransom Love of Caldera, Bob Young of Red Hat Software and (from time to time) someone from the SuSE organization.

SuSE had actually been coming to CeBIT for a number of years. First they had been sponsored by SAP, and had a pod in SAP's booth. After a couple of years they staffed a booth of their own in Halle 3 as well as staff the pod in SAP's booth, so staffing three areas at one time was stretching their resources, but I welcomed what help they could give.

To say that our booth was swamped was an understatement. There was a steady flow of people coming to our little booth, and from time to time the “flow” turned into a flood of people, pushing forward to get a CD of this “Free Software”.

We had agreed ahead of time that in our booth we would be “distribution agnostic”, which has always been a policy of Linux International, so often you would hear Ransom say “Make sure you take a copy of Red Hat too”, or Bob Young admonish someone to “Try SuSE”. I think that all of the people in the booth that day knew that the real competition was not each other, and just getting people to try any version of Free Software was a win for our side.

There were times that I would look around and see that our boot staff was mysteriously short-handed. Then, as I went into the storage area for more CD's to hand out, I would find Bob Young in that area with the phone, busily making business calls. Admonishing him to “please help out”, Bob would leave his nest and start staffing the booth again.

That first year I also met the Magic Software corporation. Magic Software, headquartered in Israel, had some software development tools that ran on top of Linux. While there were a few more companies there that could also say the word “Linux”, it was nice to see both SAP and Magic promoting it.

Throughout the rest of that year we promoted Linux among the Hannover Fairs staff, and we promoted Hannover Fairs (and CeBIT) to our member companies, so the following CeBIT saw Linux International having most of one isle for individual booths for our member companies plus a booth just for LI. We set up the LI booth to be the “first port of call” and “information booth”, allowing our staff of volunteers to explain the basics of Free and Open Source software as well as be guides for people looking for hardware and software information.

Free Software advocates who stopped by the booth to say “Hello” to me were often pressed into immediate volunteer service to act as guides and interpreters for those new to FOSS.

Once again the Hannover Fairs management were amazed that our isle with booths on both sides was packed with people asking questions, getting help, and giving our CDs. One poor vendor who had nothing to do with FOSS somehow got stuck in the middle of our “sea of FOSS”. His customers had to push and shove to get through to see him, and when FOSS people found out that he was “nothing FOSS”, they just ignored him. Show management promised me this would never happen again.

Another “growth” going on was the proliferation of cute, plush Tux penguins. When CeBIT started up one year, there was only one or two booths that were displaying Tux penguins. Then the booth staff noticed that these booths had larger than normal numbers of people “hanging out” close to the penguins. After another day there were ten penguins hanging in booths, then twenty, and by the time CeBIT was over, the entire plush penguin supply in the greater Hannover area was depleted. Booth staff found that wherever the penguin showed up, crowds of people stopped to ask “does your product work with Linux”?

It was at CeBIT one year that I purchased a five-foot tall plush Tux, then had to ship it home. That itself is a story to be told over beer.

Our “island” kept growing for the next couple of years, and then Hannover Fairs USA suggested that we move from Halle 6, where “Business IT” was shown, to Halle 3” where “System Software” was demonstrated. At the same time they designed and built our own “display area”, complete with commissioned Tux art from “Lectric Bill Pridgen”. Our booth was two stories tall, with exhibits and vendors on the first floor, and a small lounge and some offices to be used for business meetings on the top floor.

A year or so later I found that Linux New Media (publishers of various Free and Open Source magazines, and publishers of this web site) had formed an area called “Linux Park” in Halle 6. This was causing confusion between vendors, whether they should join Linux International in Halle 3, or “Linux Park” in Halle 6. Since Linux New Media seemed to be doing a good job, I volunteered to close down the work I had been doing in Halle 3. Today the “Open Source Forum” is held in Halle 2, a very prestigious hall to be in, as many of the “big companies” are there.

I will be giving three talks among the many others:

  • Wednesday, March 2 10:45-11:30 The Hidden Costs of Closed Software
  • Thursday, March 3, 10.45 - 11:30 Project Cauã: Private Sector, Environmentally Friendly Jobs with Free Software
  • Friday, March 4, 10:45 - 11:30 Making Money and Saving Money with FreeDOM Software

and on Thursday, March 3rd at 1700 I will have the honor of giving away one of the Linux New Media Awards. I already know which award I am giving away, and to whom, and I am stoked!

Finally, we will probably all retire to the “Munichner Halle”, an on-site Bavarian-style beer hall and restaurant where we will join 3200 other fair exhibitors and patrons to share some good Bavarian-style food and beer with friends.

I hope to see some of you there!

Carpe Diem!

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