Off the Beaten Path at IFA 2018

To me, the most impressive things to come out of IFA are the ideas.  Sometimes the ideas come in the shape of fully developed products – like the amazing Kirin chipset or one of the many phones or televisions unveiled at the conference.  But sometimes the ideas come from things that are not quite ready for prime time.  This year, one thing that caught my eye, and my imagination, was an awkward wristband that conference attendees couldn’t even touch.  What was unique about it?  Well, it may have inadvertently challenged the entire consumer technology industry without even meaning to.

IFA is a very, very different type of conference.  Its siblings in the technology world – Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, are hardcore tech shows.  People go to make deals and look at new products.  For CES and MWC, execs and engineers spend a week or so away from their families, friends and general lives, sequestered in a world of geeks, silicon, screens, speakers and phones.  But IFA is more of a family show.  Yes… a Family show.

You are just as likely to see a family of four or a field trip of middle schoolers crowding the halls of the Messe Berlin looking at the latest televisions or phones, as you are to see a group of businessmen.  To be fair, the show has a lot more to look at than semiconductors and drones.  IFA includes everything from lawn mowers to vacuum cleaners to the latest kitchen appliances.  In fact, the Panasonic booth had a hair salon, a kitchen, and an imaging center.  It wasn’t alone in brands trying to reimagine not just technology, but the future of day-to-day life.

I always walk away from these shows thinking about how news and products from the show will shift our industry.  This year I was pleasantly surprised.  Let me be clear – there was some great innovation at the show in every segment of technology.  Commercial-ready 8K televisions lit up the show floor and amazing phones from Huawei and Sony debuted, stretching the limits of what premium devices can do.  Blackberry even showed up with a compelling variant of its quirky Key2.  Lenovo showed off a dual screen laptop with an eInk display that doubled as a reading pane and a keyboard that challenged the need for a traditional keyboard at all, and Wear OS watches from Casio, Skagen and Diesel got us all rethinking what we need in a daily-compute device.  While some said it was a slow show, there certainly were some great new products on display.

One thing I found compelling this year was the Nubia Alpha, a concept for a smartphone comprised of a small flat hard box and a flexible screen that wraps around the wrist.  The form factor is a little clumsy, but definitely innovative – in fact, the Verge called it “the most interesting prototype at IFA this year.”  Imagine a thin screen that covers three-quarters of your wrist.  It’s interesting that the company calls it a flexible phone rather than a watch.  The nomenclature forces us to think about the future of phones in a new way. Could it be that the IoT is starting to influence form factors upstream?

Here is a video of Mr. Mobile giving a first look into this device:

So why was the Alpha the most interesting device at the show?  For a couple of reasons:

  • It is close to being ready for prime time – in fact, the company claims they will have it on sale in China by the end of the year.  (This raises an interesting point about which markets have the appetite for innovation and which ones need a slightly more polished and mainstream product set)
  • It will force us to rethink UI – the user experience will be something in between a watch and a phone, but totally different.  This means rethinking apps, rethinking how sensors are integrated, rethinking how we consume and produce content. Any time the tech industry is forced to rethink this many things in a tiny space, we see an explosion of innovation.
  • It opens up the possibility that phones evolve into a different part of our digital selves – and that creates a host of very cool possibilities.

But my opinion is not the only one out there.  Android Pit called the Nubia Alpha “an interesting gadget but without much flair.”  The impact of this device will be determined by how slick the company can make the product before it debuts for sale; how consumers respond to it; and what sort of ecosystem grows up around it.  After all, it’s the ecosystem that keeps it interesting.

For more on the Nubia Alpha, and to decide for yourself what you think about it, check out these stories on it:

Android Central here
Android Pit here
The Verge here

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