If you take the lift and stop off at the many floors of the World Trade Centre in Taipei, Taiwan, it certainly gives you a feel for the nature of business in the small island. Unlike its larger neighbour, South Korea, Taiwan remains dominated not by large conglomerates but by a host of small families making everything from motherboards to sportswear.
And that could be Taiwan's strength, rather than its weakness, especially in terms of the current economic crisis.
Taiwanese concerns may have realised that it is impossible for them to compete by making monitors, faced as they are by large Japanese and South Korean companies that can knock products out at big plants on a global basis (see news section).
However, the tiny island is the third largest country in the world in IT terms, with a market share estimated at between $30 billion and $35 billion. The small family concerns, too, are able to quickly change their ways. Although few of the companies are known outside Taiwan, and come with exotic names like the Peculiar Luck Corporation or The Siblings Over the Sea Limited, the fact is that their customers are large OEMs, which often use products from the island rebranded for their different markets.
At this year's Computex show in Taipei, there was a glut of products in different areas demonstrating the speed with which small companies can adapt to new trends, and the size of the global players they sell to.
While the companies were still demonstrating the motherboards and memory modules which are Taiwan's bread and butter, the newest designs seemed to centre around set-top boxes.
Mitac, for instance, introduced its Internet set-top box Mitac Web, a joint development with UK chipset vendor MSU. The product is aimed at a global OEM market and, while Mitac wants to sell the product into the Chinese mainland market, is has already clinched deals with a number of OEMs worldwide. The product is available for both NSTC and Pal television specifications.
Competing with this is Sampo, which has adopted a design that originated with Diba, a company now owned by Sun Microsystems. Its STB-21 comes available for both common formats and can also be connected to local area networks or telephone networks. A number of smaller Taiwanese players were also demonstrating set-top box motherboards on their stands.
There was also a big emphasis on PC Cards (PCMCIA cards), whether as memory devices, videoconferencing products or card readers. A small company called Prestico was showing its reader which, it claims, is used by the US government as part of an authentication system. Card readers can capture images from digital cameras at a far greater speed than the usual serial port. Compaq is also set to use another of the company's PC designs as a flash card later this year.
Carry Computer showed another capture card aimed at the videoconferencing market, along with a camera - both aimed at the notebook market. It also makes a number of products that connect to external hard drives, as well as flash memory products.
Another company, Kingmax, was also showing flash memory products. These are aimed at the PC, personal digital assistant and digital camera markets, and the company also has MPEG playback, Lan and fax/modem units. Backed by Taiwanese investment, including the China Development Corporation, Kingmax forecasts it will grow its business by 100 per cent in 1998.
Videoconferencing was a hot topic at the show, with a number of the family businesses showing bundles they are hoping to sell to distributors and PC vendors. Tekram was showing its On Camera video bundle, which comes with camera, adaptor card and bundled software. It conforms to ITU standards and is expected to be a low price affair.
Meanwhile, Animation was displaying its Fly Cam CCD camera, a low priced item which will achieve over 400 pixels this year, while Asia Microelectronic Development also had a video camera on display that uses a parallel rather than a serial interface.
The Taiwanese trade association, Cetra, says that while monitors may be performing poorly for the country, this is balanced by the big opportunity to sell notebooks and notebook peripherals. Acer was showing a small Travelmate machine, which came with either a 233MHz or 266MHz Pentium MMX processor. A salesman on the stand said it was working to develop a unit based on the PII/mobile chip as well. The colour unit, which comes with TFT as an option, is slightly larger than a Toshiba Libretto, but far smaller than a conventional notebook.
A number of smaller companies were also showing similar, small form factor, notebooks. It is certain that we will see some of the larger OEMs adopt the units towards the end of this year.
Scanners have always been lucrative products for the Taiwanese manufacturers, and there were a number of new products being exhibited. Mustek, which claims it holds nearly 30 per cent of the market worldwide, Umax, Microtek and Plustek were all showing new developments. A company called Spot Technology showed an ultrathin flatbed unit, which is two inches high, comes with software, scans at 600x1200 and has Universal Serial Bus connections.
Microsoft, Intel and the other large players in the industry have all decreed that the industry is to move to USB and, judging by the large number of products shown at Computex, that will happen.
But Taiwanese manufacturers are also taking a keen interest in products for the networking and telecomms markets. According to the country's own figures, sales of cord and cordless phones accounted for over US$500 million in 1997, a growth rate of over 17 per cent from the year before.
And in other areas of the comms market, Taiwan's market share is also growing. ISDN products are beginning to appear. Billion Electric Company showed a series of ISDN adaptors and also has ADSL and cable modems in the pipeline.
A number of companies were showing hubs and switches, including Planet Technology and RPTI International, both with Fast Ethernet offerings. The prices are rock bottom and are set to take advantage of the commoditisation of this type of product.
While many people consider that the price of modems could not fall much lower, many smaller companies were showing V90 units which came in both PC card and standalone form factors.
While Taiwan is concerned about the effect on revenues of the increasing trend towards cheaper and cheaper PCs, it still thinks it can take advantage of this. The usual rash of case manufacturers, low end motherboard companies and those offering inexpensive but powerful clone graphics boards were on display around the halls. All these companies are able to take advantage of these trends, rather than be affected by them. While that continues, it is likely that Taiwan will continue to thrive from its small business model, rather than suffer.
The IT industry continues to be the driving force behind the little island's success. Unlike many of its neighbours it has, thus far, weathered economic storms, and while there are worries about whether mainland China will take back a territory it has always claimed, the number of foreign visitors, on both the distributor and OEM front, seems to suggest that its products will continue to appear - albeit under less exotic names than the Interplanetary Information Co - in PCs everywhere. (Interplanetary, by the way, was showing hubs, routers, CD drives and VGA convertors.
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