Made in Taiwan: Computex 2002

CRN reports from Taipei's Computex 2002, the showcase for the largest hardware market in the world.

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By  Mark Sutton Published  July 14, 2002

I|~||~||~|No matter where in the world you buy your PC, no matter what brand is on the box, or which components you build it with, there is one certainty—at least one part of it will have been made in Taiwan. From processors, to motherboards, to complete systems, Taiwan has the busiest and most productive hardware industry in the world.

The figures are staggering. Last year the island produced over 9 million LCD monitors, 1.2 million servers, 8.8 million digital cameras. Overall, IT manufacturing is predicted to earn $44.2 billion for Taiwan’s economy this year, according to figures from the Institute for Information Industry (III), marking a growth of 17.5% from last year.

With such a massive stake in the IT economy, it is not surprising that when Taiwan holds an IT exhibition, it ranks as one of the biggest in the world attracting interest worldwide. This year’s Computex exhibition, held as usual in the capital city Taipei, was no exception. While the island is starting to share some of its phenomenal market with mainland China, and the sheer speed of dissemination of information mean that the show is no longer the showcase for absolute cutting edge technology that it once was, it is still ranked as either the second or third largest show in the world next to leader CeBIT US. It is most certainly one of the best shows for deals being done—rather than tyres being kicked and pens collected—with some 24,000 buyers visiting from around the globe.

That is not to say that Computex is not one of the best places to find out what is happening in the IT industry. As the home of so many manufacturers, there is plenty to see in the way of trends and emerging technologies—in Taiwan the concept designs and prototypes meet the realities of the commercial market. This year was no exception, with a number of new designs, concepts and trends pointing to the way forward for PC markets.

||**||II|~||~||~|One of the most noticeable trends was the impetus by motherboard manufacturers to differentiate themselves from their competitors. With so many players in the market, and so many new chipsets launched by Intel this year, the manufacturers are looking for any way they can to stand out from the crowd and to gain alternative revenue streams.

The first approach is one of adding to the features of the board. IWill is bundling a new interface, the smart panel, with its ATX form factor boards. The panel is intended to fit in the front of the PC casing, and provides a more convenient interface for consumer electronics devices. The panel includes slots for SD cards, compact flash cards, memory stick and dual USB 2.0 ports, which, by mounting on the front of the case, is intended to save the user from having to scrabble around the back of their PC to connect devices.

Definitely coming into the mainstream is USB 2.0, Bluetooth and Wireless connectivity integrated onto the board. While virtually all manufacturers have now switched to USB 2.0, neither of the wireless standards have gained market dominance yet. MSI is offering boards with both, and is finding a market for both, according to Eric Kuo, sales division manager. “We first introduced wireless and Bluetooth boards at CeBIT,” he said. “Bluetooth is getting popular, as we see developments like PDAs and so on, but the two are aimed at different markets—Bluetooth for PDA connectivity, WLAN for networking. They are going into different products.”

Another add-on that board manufacturers are introducing is high-end integrated graphics. FIC is including a Radeon graphics chip on its Socket A boards for AMD processors, with the aim of selling to the performance consumer. FIC has also begun roll out of its own range of VGA cards, called First Graphics, also using Radeon chips. The First Graphics line is intended to cover the full range of entry level to high performance cards.

Diversification into the graphics card market seems to be a popular tactic for motherboard producers. The underlying strategy for most of them is the same. Because there are only a few players left in the graphics chip market, it is a safe bet to licence technology from them, and produce a VGA card. Then the aim is to make an add-on sale of the graphics card at the same time as the motherboard. Some manufacturers are also keen to use the more consumer oriented VGA market to build brand name for their motherboards. Both MSI and FIC have introduced their own boards, as has Pine.

The Pine range, marketed under the XFX brand, is targeted firmly at the retail market, primarily the high end. The range uses the nVidia GeForce graphics chip. Sunny Narain, senior regional sales manager explained that the company would be looking for different distributors to those for its motherboard range: “There are a lot of good traders in the Middle East, but we are looking for someone that can put the product into shops. Gaming is really big in Europe, the USA, Hong Kong and China, and we would expect to see the Middle East develop too, but for that you really need the high end chips, and you must have a brand, develop retail packaging, to make the product stand out.”

||**||III|~||~||~|Another development related to the motherboard market is the emergence of small form factor PCs. While the smallest PCs in the show were Atoz’s EZgo and Saintsong’s Cappuccino (both were designed by the same person), the dominant new form factor in the space saving segment seems to be those from Shuttle, although there were certainly plenty of different options on show.

Via was showing a number of PCs in this form factor that make use of its cool processor technology and Mini-ITX mainboards. The Mini-ITX boards use either the fanless Eden Platform or a cool running C3 processor, for a low noise, low power consumption devices. Max Chiu, sales manager, international marketing for Via, said that the small form factor technologies were proving popular.

“There has been a lot of attention, a lot of sales leads. It has really been promoted well in Europe, and we are finding the small form factor boards sell even better than the P4 motherboards,” Chiu explained.

The Mini-ITX form factor was only released earlier this year, yet already there are a number of Taiwanese PC casing manufacturers, including Morex, G-Atlantic, Yeong Yang, Chenbro and Casetek producing housings, as well as PCI cards and power supplies for the form factor. “We are seeing the appearance of a whole new market out there for quiet, small form factor and highly integrated systems for a variety of computing and multimedia applications,” said Richard Brown, director of marketing for Via Technologies. “The emergence of more and more suppliers of the Mini-ITX mainboard and accompanying accessories validates the existence and rapid growth of this segment.”

It is not just the small form factor PCs that are starting to make an impact either. Tablet PCs, spurred on by the release of the beta for Microsoft’s Windows XP Professional Tablet PC Edition operating systems are coming through. Via’s own tablet PC reference model was on show, with Via aiming to position the product to both home and corporate customers, Chiu said.

Acer was also demonstrating a variation on the tablet PC theme, with its Travelmate 100, a notebook with a tablet-style screen. The PC is configurable in several different ways by virtue of a flexible connection that allows the screen to be twisted onto the outside of the notebook, or the inside like a clamshell. The product is expected to launch sometime in the third quarter.

Also debuting a number of form factors was FIC, with a large range of new products. Alongside its FIC Crystal, a tablet PC the company was also showing its Aquapad, a consumer web pad, a Bluetooth enabled PocketPC and a number of new boards. On the corporate side, FIC had an innovative small form server, the Janus, for SOHO users, based on the Transmeta Crusoe TM5600 processor running Linux, with an onboard UPS.

The company is also moving into enterprise level server boards, with the debut of a 1U rack mounted server board, the Boreas, which also has full support for network management software such as HP Openview and CA’s Unicentre. FIC has formed a new dedicated business unit to look after this line of business, according to Hassan Ashi, managing director of FIC/C&C, and the company has plans to eventually go into a full range of standalone rack servers following HP’s decision to exit the sector.

||**||IV|~||~||~|In the assembled product field, Asus was previewing a very striking range of PDAs and notebooks that will see the company moving into the consumer high end. Tony Lee of Asus said that the company will be bringing existing channel partners up to speed to sell the products once they begin to launch around July this year.

It was not just the established companies that were making a splash at the show either. This year’s Computex saw the launch of Albatron, a new motherboard and graphics card company. The Middle East was also represented as well, not just by the number of buyers from all around the region that attended the show, but by exhibitors as well.

Quality Gulf is one of the first companies from the region to have a strong presence in the show, to promote its Touchmate range of PC products. Prakash Menghani, import/export manager of Quality explained that even though most of the company’s products are made in the Far East, Computex still provides the best place to attract buyers from around the globe to help the company extend outside of the Middle East.

One trend that was evident from the show was that the CRT monitor is now well and truly dead. Old style displays were nowhere to be seen, with flat screen TFT LCD monitors taking over almost exclusively. Taiwan leads the world in TFT LCD production, and as demand for TFT LCDs has ramped as the transition from CRT has progressed. All of the island’s TFT LCD producers are now at full capacity, with some 25 million units expected to ship in 2002.

In order to meet increasing demand, many of the island’s TFT LCD producers, including market leader AU Optronics, are upping the capacity of their production lines. There is also a move to shift more production to China, with several manufacturers transferring the production of TFT LCD back end modules (LCMs), to the mainland, and a current planned production capacity of over 700,000 units per month in China.

Also on the TFT LCD front, the manufacturers are preparing to roll out fifth generation TFT LCD production facilities by 2003, which will allow for 60% greater productivity for 15-inch displays, and up to 100% more productive for 17-inch and larger size. Samsung and LG Philips have both been working on the construction of their fifth generation facilites, and in particular working towards production of larger screen sizes—LG Philips is producing TFT LCD displays in 20, 22 and 23-inch sizes. At the lower end, however, there are signs that smaller monitors are being phased out, as Samsung cuts production of 15-inch ||**||

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