Hopeful small companies pitch for business at CeBIT

Peek behind the giant screen that shows the action replays at a football game, and chances are that you'll see the badge of an Italian firm which is one of the five leaders of the sector making big outdoor electronic displays. ( dpa )

Thriving Milan-based Tecnovision is among nearly 100 Italian companies pitching for business this week at CeBIT, the international trade fair in Germany that brings together every computer-related industry.

A pulsating 180-inch screen practically bursts out of the firm's CeBIT booth, and salesman Paolo Nicoletti says that if you have a cool 500,000 euros, you can buy the company's biggest, 205-inch model.

"It's the largest television in the world," he said proudly.

Owner Franco Zambiasi, 64, founded Tecnovision to make small monochrome electronic banners. Today he is head-to-head with US, Chinese, Japanese and Belgian competitors in the big-screen trade.

The firm has gone from 5 million euros in sales in 2002 to a forecast 30 million this year, and has 150 employees, Nicoletti says.

Like many companies at CeBIT, Tecnovision buys somebody else's technology, in this case light-emitting diode (LED) panels from Nichia of Japan, and uses its own engineering bright ideas to integrate the various components into a finished product.

In other business sectors, Italian companies excel as suppliers of components to the integrators.

TomTom, the Dutch maker of car satellite-navigation devices, buys speech software from Loquendo, a subsidiary of Telecom Italia, explains Ornella Ambrois, marketing manager of the Turin company.

Spun off as a separate company in 2001 but still based at the Telecom labs, Loquendo has 100 employees and researches the languages of the world so that computers can "read aloud" information or "understand" simple spoken commands in many tongues.

Manufacturers can not only buy modules from Loquendo so that a computer understands spoken English and Chinese, but also buy the dialects of Spanish in separate versions, so that a device responds to the accent of Argentina for example rather than Madrid.

To prepare each module, Loquendo scientists make extensive recordings of native speakers, Ambrois explains.

You won't know that an airport-announcements or telephone banking system comes from Loquendo, but you might suspect it does - if the voice sounds natural and expressive rather robotic and alien.

CeBIT, which runs till Sunday, is a six-day marketing opportunity for the Italian companies, with trade buyers flying in from round the world to see new products.

Turin's chamber of commerce mustered 11 small companies from the Piedmont region that are keen to build their exports. It arranged for them to share space on a stand in CeBIT's Future Park Pavilion.

Among them is a father-and-son outfit, Incomedia, which is already selling its web-design software in 40 nations.

Set up by Vieri Ranfagni and his sons Federico and Stefano in 1998 in Ivrea, Incomedia now has a workforce of 12 and bills its wizard-like WebSite X5 software as able to create an online presence in just five easy steps.

Sales manager Federico Ranfagni explains that tiny businesses round the world are keen to establish an internet presence of their very own without having to hire an expensive web consultant. If they buy X5, they can do it themselves.

"With this software they can even create an online shop," he explained.

Long before the Ranfagnis went into business, their hometown Ivrea had an historic connection to CeBIT, which was originally an office equipment fair. Ivrea was the headquarters of Olivetti, a former typewriter manufacturer and early maker of personal computers.

If Olivetti had not failed, and the town had not lost half its population, Ivrea might have become a centre of European computing.

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