September 29, 2023

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What tech execs were (and weren’t) saying about COVID-19 at IFA 2020


LG showed off an air-purifying mask.


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With the coronavirus pandemic dramatically shaking up our 2020 calendars, big tech events that typically cluster thousands of attendees together in exhibition halls and meeting rooms have had to adapt. Some have gone virtual, some have been canceled, but IFA, Europe’s annual tech show in Berlin, found a middle ground.

This week the tech industry has gathered, either in Berlin or via the show’s online portal, to see new products launched and hear executives from some of the world’s biggest tech companies speak about what comes next.

Among the press conferences and keynote presentations, it’s been tricky for speakers to avoid discussing the lingering presence of COVID-19 around the world. Kicking off the show on Thursday morning, IFA Executive Director Jens Heithecker addressed the events of 2020 head-on.

“So much has happened since IFA 2019, it feels more than one year ago,” he said. “Our world has been uprooted in so many ways, whether it is the pandemic, political tensions, trade wars, natural disasters, the continued battle for equality, Black Lives Matter. I think you will agree, this year has been a tough one.”

The elephant in the room

While Heithecker was sober and forthright in his assessment of the impact of COVID-19, other speakers seemed less keen to give too much time over to discussing the issue. The words “coronavirus” and “COVID” were notably absent from the press conferences and keynote events that took place across the show. Instead, execs referred only to the “pandemic” and “the new normal.”

Huawei VP Victor Zhang didn’t discuss the pandemic at all in his own keynote speech, instead diving straight into the company’s continued commitment to operating in and out of Europe. Other execs made cursory references to the pandemic at the start of their keynote talks before swiftly moving on.

“Although 2020 has been a very challenging year, Honor insists on bringing unrivaled products at unbeatable value to consumers,” said Honor CEO George Zhao. Like many executives from outside Europe, Zhang and Zhao were unable to travel to attend the show, meaning instead that their presentations were virtual.

“We want to give our blessings to the people who are fighting the pandemic,” said TCL Sales and Marketing Director Frederic Langin at the start of the company’s press conference. “Despite those difficult times, our communities and industries have never been more connected, which is why the theme of today is switched-on possibilities.”

Langin’s reference was a direct segue into discussing TCL’s product lineup, but several speakers used their opportunities to explore the ways in which COVID-19 had shown the world the importance of reliable connectivity. 


Qualcomm’s IFA press conference looked very different this year.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

“The time for powerful, reliable, secure connectivity is right now,” said Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon. “We’ve all had to dramatically change our lives, and as we do so we’re understanding the potential of the incredible technologies we have today. We don’t have to talk about a digital future anymore — we’re seeing it happening right before us.”

“Although the pandemic imposed boundaries all around us, we did not stop,” Samsung Europe’s chief marketing officer, Benjamin Braun, said during the company’s totally virtual Life Unstoppable event. “For quite a while it was only us inside our four walls, but technology enabled us to bridge to a bigger world; technology became a lifeline.”

The new normal and the future

The return to normality, or at least a move away from the unusual circumstances that people have lived through for most of the year, was also a frequent theme.

“The fact that we are meeting here today in Berlin, it gives us back at least a bit of much-needed normality,” said Heithecker. “I see it as a big sign there is a normal ahead — I’m not going to call it a new normal, because we don’t know our future yet.”

Qualcomm’s Amon used the event to discuss how the pandemic has changed our expectations about the way technology will serve us in the future. 

“In the past, dialing into a meeting was enough, but now we expect that call to have video. The future will expect virtual presence with augmented reality,” he said. The next big innovation, he added, will be “the convergence of visual and physical worlds to get the best of both across virtually every industry.”

LG went one step further in its own press conference, presenting its whole product lineup around the idea that “life’s good from home.” Company President and CTO IP Park discussed how lockdown has opened up new potential for people’s homes. “We’re having to try new things, new ways of living,” he said.

Among LG’s new products was a battery-powered air-purifying mask meant to help people breathe more easily while abiding by health and safety restrictions. Park also referenced a thermal imaging camera equipped with artificial intelligence designed to help identify people with a fever.

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LG shows off air-purifying face mask at IFA 2020


There was also significant emphasis during LG’s product presentation on in-home cleaning technology, entertainment products that could alleviate boredom, and even telepresence robots. “We are committed to providing products and services that create a perfect nest of safety,” said Park.

At IFA, LG was unique in its approach to tailoring its tech to the pandemic, but most of the companies in attendance couldn’t be as nimble. They had their product lineups for the show planned out long before coronavirus was a going concern. The same might not be true of CES, the world’d biggest tech show, which will be all-digital when it takes place in January. By then, we might see more companies adapt their products and strategies to cater to the “new normal” — or whatever we’re calling it by the time 2021 rolls around.

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