Berlin: The Inside Story of Pocketnow at IFA 2012
Ever since the launch of our latest format, dubbed “Pocketnow 5.0,” we’ve been broadening our focus bit by bit. We’re still keeping our eyes mainly on smartphones and tablets, of course, but we’ve started expanding into some behind-the-scenes material as well. This is the kind of stuff that formerly would have been of interest only to a tiny fraction of our readership, the die-hard tech media superfans, but which is rising in popularity as our little corner of the journalism world grows.
Think about it: when Pocketnow started 12 years ago, it was one of only a handful of tech blogs, reporting on a segment of the marketplace still reserved for hardcore enthusiasts with a lot of money to burn. If you owned a smartphone in 2000, you were one of an elite few– and you had to have big pockets in both senses of the phrase. Back then, a “peek behind the curtain” of what it’s like to be a mobile technology writer would have fallen firmly in the “who cares?” category.
For some of you, it still does (and you folks should go ahead and skip this piece, or just head right down to the comments now with your “boring”s and your “tl;dr”s). But a growing portion of our audience, those who enjoyed our pieces on what phones and tablets the team carries, and who commented extensively on our “how Pocketnow works” article, want to know what it’s like on our side of the fence.
There are few examples of the tech-media lifestyle more significant than a trade show. Anton D. Nagy and I spent the past week in Berlin at the impossibly-cool-sounding “Internationale Funkaustellung,” the annual consumer-electronics show better known as IFA. It was my first time covering a trade show for a tech publication. Here’s what I learned.
By The Time The Show Starts, The New Stuff Has Already Been Announced
IFA officially opened to the public on 31 August, but by that time, the mobile-technology manufacturers had already made nearly every major announcement they’d planned. A large portion of our hands-on video coverage from the past week was shot and uploaded before IFA actually began.
This is a result of pre-show events thrown by various manufacturers, which can take the form of intimate gatherings, huge blockbuster announcements, or something in between. For added flavor, there are also sometimes “NDA events,” which carry nondisclosure exceptions preventing attendees from writing about the products discussed therein. All of these are typically invitation-only gatherings for press and assorted media, and they offer opportunities not just to drool over hot new hardware, but to meet some of the people responsible for marketing, selling, and even designing it. The atmosphere is often lively, with besuited OEM employees shooting the breeze with the typically less-well-dressed media folks. Sometimes there are cocktails, and sometimes not; usually, food is abundant. The energy in the room is almost always through-the-roof, with the OEM’s employees having worked a year or more on major products and excited to be finally showing off the fruits of their efforts, and the press equally excited after weeks or months of leaked images and specs.
So, while the show itself has a lot to offer, most of the newsworthy material is already published by the time the doors open to the public. Maybe that shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, but it was. Almost as surprising as the next item on our list …
Manufacturer Representatives Sometimes Get It Wrong
Product announcements are typically followed by hands-on time with the new devices, usually in a side room or in a portion of the exhibition hall which isn’t opened until after the big assembly. The media (at least, those who haven’t been given early access to the devices) dash to the new room in a mad scramble to be the first to shoot a hands-on video, which can be quite a feat: there are a limited number of units available for handling. Getting there first, and shooting a video as quickly as possible, is the name of the game in order to deliver timely coverage.
That can be tricky if you haven’t taken solid notes at the announcement, or if you place too much faith on the product presenters in the hands-on room. These are not always employees of the OEM itself; they’re often from PR or marketing agencies contracted specifically for the event. Now, I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing these people; a good friend of mine does auto shows as a presenter, and I’ve seen, firsthand, how much work goes into memorizing the mountain of specs that must be regurgitated at a moment’s notice.
That said, sometimes people make mistakes, and it’s not always easy to keep everything straight in your head when a legion of impatient bloggers and journalists are lunging at the smartphone prototype in your hand. Even when wearing “cheat sheets,” the cards around their necks bearing the talking points about their products, the representatives can still get mixed up in the chaos, claiming a device is an “X-Whatever” when it’s really an “X-Whatever-B,” for example.
That’s what happened after the Sony event when we got hands-on time with the new Xperia lineup, and we posted a pair of mis-titled videos with mis-quoted specs. We’d gotten the information straight from the product rep, but it turned out she was reading from the wrong card. Ultimately, of course, responsibility falls on us; we should have double-checked the information before publishing.
But I’ve learned that that’s sometimes easier said than done, because …
It Really Is As Exhausting As Everyone Says
For years before coming to Pocketnow, I followed news coverage of trade shows like IFA, CES, CTIA, MWC, and so on. At first, most of that coverage focused only on the announced products. But then people started podcasting, and I got to hear the fatigue in their voices when they’d broadcast from a trade show, as we recently did. Almost no one could avoid commenting on just how exhausting the experience was, and in the days leading up to IFA 2012, I was slightly nervous about the amount of sleep deprivation I was in for.
That turned out to be a fair amount. The combination of a six-hour time zone offset with the typical travel-related exhaustion was enough to render me a little on the spacey side for the first day or two of coverage, and the high temperatures in Berlin during those early days didn’t help. I found myself subsisting mainly on coffee and energy drinks, which then conspired with the jetlag to render sleep difficult when I had time for it.
All that said, the payoffs were extraordinary. In exchange for the lost rest, we were able to post about twenty different hands-on and comparison videos over the course of IFA. In spite of my on-camera visage looking even more burned-out than usual, posting that much material in such a short time delivered its own special satisfaction that overcame any complaints I may have had about lack of sleep. In fact, that bears repeating in its own special section:
It’s Its Own Geeky Thrill
Covering product releases remotely is one thing. Receiving press releases from companies somewhere over the horizon, with gleaming press photos and glowing spec rundowns of their shiny new devices is exciting. But it’s nothing like being there for the unveiling. Seeing a new smartphone with your own eyes, before the rest of the world knows it exists. And then getting to hold it. To kick off the evaluation process and start deciding what you think about it; not just how it looks in a video or what the specifications say it’s capable of, but how it feels to operate it.
We always try to impart a sense of how a new device feels in our videos and written coverage, and we like to think we do a good job of that. When we publish a hands-on piece, we try to get a reader as close as possible to understanding what the device actually feels like as we stand there on the trade-show floor.
Combatting the inherent excitement of the show’s atmosphere and the artificial euphoria the manufacturers try to drum up is necessary to provide a balanced viewpoint, but it’s not always easy. Because, just like I always suspected, trade shows in the mobile world are stimulating, frenetic, explosive experiences unlike any other.
And I’m already looking forward to the next one.
Have a question about IFA -or trade shows in general- that we didn’t get to? Want to know more about covering Sony, Samsung, or that awesome fernsehturm in the last photo? We only got a smattering of questions from our last-minute post on Twitter, so pitch your queries and comments to the Disqus catcher below!