CeBIT 2011 in (overdue) review
The German Linux Magazine runs a sponsored an "Open Source Lounge" at CeBIT each year. Last year I put in a proposal for DAViCal and it got accepted! With some airfare support from InternetNZ I got to showcase my Free Software project at the largest IT trade fair in the world.
If you have an open source project to promote I can't recommend this highly enough. Below is a review of my experience at CeBIT early this year. This is long overdue for posting, and I'm prompted now because submissions are now open for the Open Source Project Lounge at CeBIT in 2012. Apply now.
DAViCal at CeBIT 2011
CeBIT in Hannover is said to be the largest trade fair in the world, attracting over 300,000 visitors during it's five days. Late last year a DAViCal user in Germany suggested that I apply for a free booth for DAViCal in the Linux New Media “Open Source Project Lounge”. When DAViCal was accepted, I realised I needed some funding to help me travel around the world to attend, so I applied for a grant from InternetNZ who were kind enough to agree to cover part of my travel costs, and I was on my way.
Germany in March is cold, especially for me coming from Summer! My travel allowed for a couple of days in Germany before CeBIT because that was when I could get the cheapest flights, and I wanted to have a little time to recover from the journey. Everyone had warned me to pack my winter woollies, and they were definitely needed! I stayed with a friend in Hamburg for two days and on the the second day we walked through the frozen park, past the frozen lake and over the frozen streams to see the Attraktor Hackerspace in Hamburg Nord where the CCC also hold their meetings – a very impressive hackerspace in a repurposed bank (including the vault :-) with several separated areas for talks, meetings and workplaces.
The day before CeBIT I travelled to Hannover to take a look at my booth space, fetch exhibitor passes for myself and volunteers and generally prepare to do battle with the crowds. The following day the fair started and it was up at 6:30 to get ready and catch the 7:38 train out to the fairgrounds. Although the fair opens at 9:00 there was always something to do between eight o'clock or so when I arrived at my booth and when the attendees started wandering past.
I was fortunate to have two volunteers for my booth who were there all week, as well as a couple more who turned up on the first two days. Not only did this mean that I got to spend a few hours during the week actually wandering the fairgrounds, but that I had some knowledgeable native german speakers for the occasional visitor who could not speak English. DAViCal has been translated into a dozen languages, and there had been some extra work put in to update the German translation before CeBIT also.
As well as showing DAViCal, I was also able to demonstrate a new project at the fair which was “aCal” - a CalDAV Calendar Client for Android which I had released into the market just a few days beforehand for a token sum (it is licensed GPL v3 or later and the source code is available on gitorious.org). Having the smartphone devices available was great for giving live demonstrations, and I used the timetable for events at the Open Source Forum across the aisle from the Open Source Lounge to populate a calendar that we shared among a variety of devices.
The first day was really the calm before the storm, and we saw lots of people asking what we were about, and had some good conversations with people wanting to know more, or telling us they used the software and were very happy with it.
CeBIT closes the gates at 18:00 with the visitor supply drying up pretty quickly around then and the secret lives of the exhibitors are revealed with people starting to relax and joke, and beer or wine starting to come out and some booth parties kicking off... if you have the stamina! I didn't, so it was off back to the train, to Hildesheim, to dinner and to bed.
That first day blurred into the next, and the next and by Friday I was starting to lose my voice with all the talking I had been doing. I was visited by a chap from Posnan University who are a DAViCal user and he invited me down to the Polish stand to tell me about what they do there, and he agreed that they would love to help get the Polish translation improved. Another DAViCal user turned up with some bavarian wheat beer and a special beer glass for it by way of thanks. In some spare moments I fixed a bug in aCal's handling of character sets and uploaded a new version, so that we could use umlauts in events. Many people came past to talk to us, some of whom want to help with them project or have ideas for interesting things to do with DAViCal, some were already users of DAViCal and some went away thinking that they would be in the future.
The last day of CeBIT is a little different: it's a Saturday and the doors are opened to the public and the minimum age is lowered to allow children to attend the event. I had been warned that this day is a madhouse, and it did indeed seem to be so for many booths. For DAViCal it was probably quieter than the day before, I think perhaps because calendar server software is inherently less “sexy” than many of the other things on display. We still had plenty of great discussions with interested people nonetheless and to be honest I was fairly happy to be spared the further exhaustion that had been threatened.
Sunday was spent recuperating: discovering that Hildesheim has a great little restaurant that does traditional german pancakes for breakfast and then wandering around the small city soaking in the sunshine that I'd seen through the windows outside all week.
On Monday I caught the train to Mönchengladbach to meet with an organisation that might provide support for DAViCal in Germany, but who hadn't been able to come to the fair to see me due to illness. I was encouraged to spend the night in Aachen “a beautiful little city”, which I did, arriving around sunset and I spent a couple more days before flying home being intensely antisocial to recover from the furious week beforehand.
Is CeBIT worth it?
CeBIT seemed to me to be quite a different business model, or perhaps on a different scale. I've seen trade fairs in New Zealand for other purposes, but not to showcase software and services in quite this way. To give an idea of it's scale, consider that I had a tiny booth in a hall that was probably four times the size of the TSB Arena, and CeBIT included around 20 such buildings , packed with exhibitors, with free buses to get around the campus, acres of multi-storey parking buildings, two train stations, and so on. The scale of the event is incredible.
As a result of this scale, CeBIT boasts impressive visitor numbers, and while a visitor will usually attend with a specific area of interest in relation to their business they will also wander the fair to see other areas of more personal interest, or just to see what is around. Open Source is a specific area of interest to a significant percentage of business in Germany, and Deutsche Messe, the fair operators, recognise the value of having an open source area as a draw for visitors, with the primary open source area placed in Hall 2, directly off the main north entrance. Within the open source area, the “Open Source Project Lounge”, where DAViCal was located, is a series of booths sponsored by Linux New Media AG. Projects in the Open Source Lounge are selected by a jury of Linux New Media, Deutsche Messe and several community advisors, so as such there is a range of interesting projects on show and the draw of any given project has a flow-on effect to the others. As an example, at one point while briefly minding the adjacent stand for the OpenEmbedded project I was unable to help an inquiring visitor, but I was able to talk about DAViCal with him until the exhibitor returned to answer his question. His interest in DAViCal was definitely increased in this process, and I'm sure that many people came into our area of the lounge attracted by a specific exhibitor and moving on to see some of the others.
Outside of this association with open source, however, CeBIT offers something which general free software events cannot: an association with mainstream software and services. This presentation of Open Source alongside IBM, SAP, HP, Oracle, Software AG, Apple, Microsoft and so forth makes inclusion at this event particularly valuable. Free software solutions can have good brand recognition within the open ecosystem itself and yet be practically unheard of outside it. Most traditional methods of communication with suppliers don't work well with Open Source projects: a request for proposal will sail silently by, unless noted by a related commercial entity. In general there is no sales department, and marketing is frequently a desultory hit or miss affair.
The fair is different. The fair is about talking with people. While there is still plenty of collateral marketing with brochures, signs, presentations and giveaway knick-knacks those things are just there to bring people into range: the real action happens when you engage a person in conversation, and at that point a humble free software project can be on an equal footing with a larger booth staffed with eager young salesmen.
Of course there are a number of places where free software can get a booth. Linuxtag is a German example where there are many booths for free software projects, linux.conf.au also offers booths to free software projects during it's more outreach “Open Day” and software freedom day events happen all around the world where booths are available, but the audience arriving at these events are all largely pre-sold on openness and free software.
So in presenting this broad blend of people, in a way in which free software projects can present on a roughly equal footing with their commercial brethren, CeBIT is an opportunity not to be missed.
The numbers speak for themselves, too: traffic to the DAViCal websites has increased by about 50% around CeBIT with 25% coming from Germany, but significant increases also from France, Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland and Poland. Traffic to the DAViCal wiki has doubled over the last 12 months in a steady increase to around 200,000 page views each month. This sudden increase to around 10000/day in March, with some days during CeBIT peaking at over 20000/day
I won't be returning to CeBIT to represent DAViCal in Hannover next year as the sponsored booth is pretty much a one-time thing and the costs involved in purchasing a booth for attendance at the fair are significant (around NZD$15000 for a small 3m x 2m stall). It's possible that I will return next year in a different capacity, as one of the larger stand organisers has confidentially indicated he will invite me to attend as part of an “Open Source Apps” area that he is considering running on his stand, somewhat along the lines of the “Open Source Lounge”. Time will tell, I guess, but if invited I think I would definitely go for that.
I will definitely be suggesting to a few specific free software projects that they should apply for the Linux New Media opportunity when it comes around again. Koha is one project that immediately springs to mind, but of course there are many, many worthy free software projects and this opportunity seems to be little-understood outside of Germany.
If I do convince a project to apply, and they are successful, I will also try and give them some assistance and background knowledge to understand the fair, and how best they can take advantage of the opportunity it offers.
Some basic tips would be:
- Book accommodation early, a small apartment or B&B is good. CeBIT accommodation prices are exceptionally high – 3 or more times normal rates. There are companies that specialise in renting apartments for the week of CeBIT which are more reasonably priced.
- The fair is in “Hannover”, except that really it is some distance to the southeast. Exhibitors tickets provide free transport within greater Hannover for the whole week, so you don't actually need to be that close. Options like Hildesheim, a city of some 120k people south of Hannover (where I stayed), are also good although they add a small transport cost.
- Have a pop-up banner for your project.
- Develop a slideshow which tells people about your project and which can just be left running on a larger screen.
- Have a flyer you can hand out to interested people.
- Get at least one committed person to assist on the stand for the whole week.
- Get some more volunteers to assist on the stand for one day each.
- Pace yourself: get to bed early and try not to overdo the partying – it's a long week!
- If you want to take a look around the fair don't wait until Friday or Saturday – do it on Thursday or earlier.
… and finally...
I would like to express my appreciation to InternetNZ for the grant to partially cover my travel costs to Hannover, making my attendance at this outstanding event much more achievable. My thanks also to Britta Wulfling who supported all of the projects in the Open Source Lounge. My friends Alexander & Meike in Hildesheim who supplied somewhere for me to recuperate, and accompanied me to the fair every day to run the Debian booth. Thanks also, of course, to the German Linux Magazine for selecting DAViCal for a free booth, and to Benny who pointed the opportunity out, encouraged me to apply, and came along and helped out for the whole week.