Germany's IFA show, debut ground for numerous new products, hits 90 years old

From radios and Einstein through teletext, DVDs and MP3 to smartwatches, IFA has seen lots of new products

Flat screen TVs draw the curious at IFA 2001

Flat screen TVs draw the curious at IFA 2001

When German radio manufacturers gathered in 1924 to show off their products, just a year after regular broadcasting began in the country, they probably didn't imagine they were sowing the seeds for what eventually would become IFA.

Despite war, the rise of new communications technologies and the fall of European consumer electronics companies to Asian rivals, Berlin's annual "funkausstellung" (still today, the "FA" in IFA) has grown to become one of the world's biggest consumer electronics shows. This year's event kicks off this week in Berlin.

IFA 2014 is likely to be notable for a number of smartwatches that are expected to debut. They will join a long line of products that have been introduced at IFA, beginning in the 1920s with those radios.

Television arrived at the show in 1928, but continued to be dominated by radio. One of the earliest pictures from IFA shows Albert Einstein inspecting radio sets at the event. He delivered the opening address at what the time was called the "7th Great German Radio and Phonograph Show."

The rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s meant for several years the event was organized by the Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and the show came to a temporary halt in 1939 after its 16th occurrence when Europe was plunged into World War II.

Following the end of the war and the division of Germany, the show left Berlin and was held sporadically from 1950 in Dusseldorf and then in Frankfurt. These years marked the first big expansion of consumer electronics as FM radio began, television became more widespread, transistorized equipment appeared and inventions like the audio cassette and remote control began appearing.

In 1967, the wandering event returned to West Berlin and was the launchpad for a technology that wowed consumers at the time: color television. Berlin Mayor Will Brandt used the event to switch on broadcasting in the city, a couple of years before the same happened in East Germany.

As the pace of development picked up in the consumer electronics industry, so did the number of product launches that took place at IFA. The show saw teletext (1977), the compact disc (1979), Radio Data System (1987), widescreen TV (1989), MiniDisc and MP3 (1991), DVD (1997) and digital TV (2003).

It wasn't until 1995 that organizers say IFA became a truly multimedia show, but to visitors then the future of consumer electronics must have been clear: small, digital and networked.

As wave after wave of new products began flooding onto the market, manufacturers could no longer be held to two-year product cycles and IFA organizers made one of their most important decisions: to hold the show annually.

That decision, from 2005, led to a defection over the next few years of major consumer electronics companies from Cebit, a large IT show held annually in Hanover during the cold month of March, to the warm Berlin sunshine of early September. What made matters worse for Cebit was that phone makers were also decamping to Mobile World Congress, held annually in Barcelona in February.

For now, IFA remains one of the two major consumer electronics shows in the world. The other is January's CES in Las Vegas, which in comparison is much younger. It began in 1967.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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