Reinhard Ploss has been the chief executive officer of Infineon since 2012. The German firm makes semi-conductors and other components for the IT sector.
In his office at the Infineon headquarters in Neubiberg near Munich, his smartphone suddenly rings and Mr. Ploss jumps up to get it. Only two people would call that number, he says: His wife or his model aircraft dealer. It’s the latter. The 59-year-old is an enthusiastic pilot of miniature helicopters, but today the interview takes priority and he quickly gets down to business.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Ploss, everyone is talking about the “Internet of Things,” the idea of placing computer chips in almost anything – from fridges to cows – to hook them up to the web. At the National IT Summit in Hamburg this week you plan to demonstrate to the German chancellor in just three minutes how data needs to be protected in this environment. It’s an ambitious undertaking, don’t you think?
Mr. Ploss: Three minutes is enough to get the key message across.
And what is that?
Our exhibit shows how we communicate securely in an uncertain environment. The message I want to give the chancellor is that we have a great opportunity and the technical means to build a system in Germany with which, for example, human beings or machines can reliably identify each other in the digital network.
It sounds like science fiction.
No, we’re talking about the present. IT security is the prerequisite for important future issues that are being addressed today. Take, for example, the need to protect identity, business secrets and critical infrastructure such as energy supply against infiltration by hackers. That’s why it’s so important that senders and receivers of information can identify themselves. I’m talking about a sort of identity passport on the Internet.
IT security is the prerequisite for important future issues that are being addressed today.
Who could issue such a passport? And would it mean we’d have a sort of digital federal passport agency?
It doesn’t need to be an agency. An alternative would be a public-private partnership, not unlike ICANN…
…the semi-governmental organization in California that issues and administers Internet addresses worldwide.
Except that this time it would be Europe and not the United States taking the lead. I would like to see politicians launching an initiative, as was the case with e-mobility, for example.
You mean the unrealistic goal to a million electric cars by 2020?
I’m talking about an effective partnership that brings together the relevant players in government and business, such as hardware manufacturers, telecommunications groups and software companies, on the one hand, and the research ministry, the economics ministry and the Federal Office for Information Security on the other. It isn’t just since the revelations by Edward Snowden that Germany has been seen as trustworthy when it comes to data privacy. Germany has the opportunity to become a sort of integrity anchor for the world.
The question is: Will it use the opportunity?
There is a lot of political will, in Europe and in Germany, but we still lack a common direction. If we don’t do it others will, such as the big American Internet companies like Amazon, Google, PayPal and Facebook. We have the tools that allow us to fight for our goals. But we have to make a stronger connection between conceptual planning and speed.
Speed isn’t exactly a strength of German policy.
The same can be said for many companies. We in Germany are good at implementing complex things. But we need to improve when it comes to being fast. Speed is critical when we develop infrastructure. It’s a complex thing, in conceptual terms. The applications of the modern digital age will depend on speed – and they offer enormous potential.
Amazon and Google are giant corporations, which are inherently fast and are changing markets. Aside from policymakers, who could be the drivers in Germany?
We need industry commitment. That’s why the BDI (Federation of German Industry) could play an important role as an umbrella group and coordinator. After all, the aim is to build a large system and not just develop individual elements.
Why is Infineon so interested in Industry 4.0, the German government’s strategy to promote the computerization of manufacturing?
First, we see a great opportunity here for Germany as a location for industry, and as a global company we are also linked to Germany. Second, we also supply chips for identity cards, passports and credit and debit cards worth half a billion euros a year. They are the security anchors in extremely reliable systems – and they can also be used elsewhere.
Industry 4.0 is on everyone’s lips. It involves the use of intelligent robots. Are German companies truly prepared to approach networking on a large scale?
I’m not worried about the automobile industry. Tesla was a wakeup call for them. Perhaps we’re not as fast as the Americans with autonomous cars, but we are ready for the future when it comes to electric and hybrid cars, even if the market isn’t there yet.
There will be robots that learn as they watch people work and then assume the same tasks themselves.
And other sectors?
I’m more concerned about the industrial sector. Small and medium-sized companies, in particular, need support on the road to Industry 4.0. You have to ask yourself: What added value do we offer on the basis of networking? There will be robots that learn as they watch people work and then assume the same tasks themselves. And in light of demographic developments, robots will also provide important support in home care for older people. That’s the future.
Silicon Valley is the measure of all things in the IT world. Why, exactly?
Because a biosphere of people who think in particular ways has developed there. It also exists on the East Coast, around Boston. Such centers always attract new, clever people.
Why can’t we do this in Germany?
Berlin, for example, has potential with its startup community. On the other hand, here in Germany we tend to delight over those who are beneath us. Greatness doesn’t come from denigrating others. In America, the people who have made it are admired.
Infineon bought International Rectifier, a U.S. competitor, for €2.3 billion ($2.94 billion). Do you plan to continue acquiring companies?
We are fundamentally always open to acquisitions. But we have to digest such a big bite before we take the next bite.
Mr. Ploss, thank you for the interview.