Gitex 2011: Gitex has helped put Dubai on the map as the region's technology powerhouse. But despite being a hub for sales, the emirate still has not made its mark as an innovator of gadgets.
Gitex grows as Dubai plants roots in technology
If the advent of the iPod has proved anything, it is that gadgets have moved from the realm of the geek to something more chic.
The Dubai technology exhibition Gitex, which starts today, has mirrored the progression of gadgets over the past three decades.
Along the way, the show has helped to transform Dubai, once a sleepy backwater, into the region's technology powerhouse.
At the birth of Gitex in 1981, a fledgling company called Microsoft had just launched the first, somewhat clunky edition of the MS-DOS operating system.
Thirty years on, we have the sleek Apple iPad tablet computer, created by the company that the late Steve Jobs led.
Gitex grew up with such technology, which - along with the likes of the laptop, Nintendo Wii and BlackBerry - is now firmly in the mainstream.
Alexander McNabb, a Gitex veteran and the group account director at Spot On Public Relations in Dubai, first attended the exhibition in 1988.
He has seen Gitex grow from an event spanning two halls of Dubai's exhibition centre to the giant attraction it is today. Along the way, he has worked at the show as a journalist and PR executive; he even met his wife there.
"Gitex was tiny. Nobody was spending big budgets. It was a computer show," Mr McNabb says. "Now it's an extravaganza of glorious proportions. You're looking at an entirely different market."
In the early days of Gitex, not everyone involved in the Middle East was convinced of the value, or the appropriateness, of emerging technologies.
"There was a … debate as to whether we wanted the internet, whether it was anti-Islamic," Mr McNabb says.
Even the local media took some convincing. In the mid-1990s, one English-language newspaper in Dubai refused to cover the internet because the editor deemed it "a passing fad", Mr McNabb says.
How times have changed. International technology giants such as IBM, Research In Motion - the maker of BlackBerry - and Google have a presence at this year's Gitex exhibition, just as they have chosen Dubai as a base for their regional offices.
That is no coincidence, given that Gitex helped to put Dubai on the map as the Middle East's technology hub, Mr McNabb says.
"I think Gitex has always been good for the region," he says. "An executive comes in from abroad, looks at Gitex, and says 'we've got to be here'."
Most multinational IT companies that came to the Middle East chose Dubai as their regional base - and the one significant player that did not choose Dubai soon regretted its decision, Mr McNabb says.
"The only company I know of that didn't take that decision was Compaq, which ended up in Bahrain, and then upped sticks after a year and came to Dubai," he says.
Most of the top technology businesses will be present at the main Gitex exhibition this year, with cyber security, digital marketing and cloud computing high on the agenda. Retailers will sell the latest gadgets at the accompanying Gitex Shopper event.
The twin events now attract a much more diverse clientele, industry experts say. "I've seen Gitex Shoppers going back 15 years ago, when it was a little tent outside the World Trade Centre," says Ashish Panjabi, the chief operating officer of Jacky's Electronics.
"It's changed completely. Back then it was a techie event. You went there to buy a motherboard, a mouse or a RAM chip. There were literally no women," he says.
The consumer electronics market in the UAE is forecast by Business Monitor International to be worth US$3.4 billion (Dh12.48bn) by the end of this year, ranking second only to Saudi Arabia in the region.
Gadgets such as iPods and smartphones have helped boost spending on technology in the UAE.
"I think people are quite trend-conscious over here. Within certain communities … it's the accessories that they carry around with them that define them, whether it's the latest BlackBerry or the latest Sony Viao laptop," Mr Panjabi says.
The popularity of smartphones in the UAE has boosted data usage to the point where Etisalat recently launched a fourth-generation, or 4G, mobile network, which gives faster mobile internet connections than are available in many developed countries.
"As a country, it's very tech-savvy. It's got the latest smartphones," says Dino Wilkinson, a technology specialist and partner at the law firm Norton Rose Middle East.
Yet the high demand for gadgets in cities such as Dubai is undercut by the fact that the UAE still gets technology later than some parts of the world.
Many mobile phone users here bought the iPhone 4 on the grey market at the time it was launched in the US, well before it became officially available in the UAE. The region is usually an afterthought for brands in the global roll-out of products.
The growth of the technology industry in the UAE has certainly been a rocky road. According to the research company IDC, global IT spending slumped more than 5 per cent during the recession years of 2008 and 2009.
The downturn prompted many companies to reconsider paying for a stand at Gitex Technology Week.
Prince Computers, which distributes video games and gadgets such as webcams, stayed away from Gitex in 2008 and 2009 after having been at the show for six years.
"Pre-recession, it was pretty great for us, but we had two years post-recession where it was a bit slow and down," says Allwyn Gaekwad, the area manager for Prince Computers.
His company returned to the show last year and has a bigger stand at this year's event, he says.
"This is the only IT-related show for the region, so we need to be a part of it as an IT distributor," he says. With the world economy recovering, spending on electronics in the UAE is forecast to grow by more than 10 per cent a year. And so the question for many commentators is whether Dubai can make it as an innovator rather than as a mere consumer of gadgets.
Many technology companies present in the emirate have only sales offices here - with product development happening elsewhere.
"One of the sadnesses is that Gitex never created an innovation culture," Mr McNabb says. "[But] we're seeing a lot more start-up activity."
And so it remains to be seen whether Dubai will give rise to something as significant as the Apple iPod.