Taiwan may be one of the world's smallest island nations, but it plays a huge role in worldwide PC production. It claims to carry out more than half the world's monitor production, the majority of notebook PC manufacturing and is the third largest producer of PCs on the planet.
At the annual Computex trade show in Taipei last week, the country's PC makers and component suppliers showed off the products that will shortly turn up on PC dealers' shelves in the UK and the rest of the world bearing a dazzling array of labels.
Because so many of the world's major PC makers not only buy their components from Taiwan-based manufacturers, but also commonly have Taiwanese companies produce ready-to-ship computers for them on OEM basis, the products on display at Computex are actually a glimpse of what you'll be seeing worldwide over the next six months.
The first insight that strikes the Computex visitor is that Intel may well be in for some short term pain with its move to a design for its new Pentium II processor, which is not Socket 7-compatible.
Not only was business brisk at the booths of both major Intel competitors - AMD and Cyrix - but there were dozens of motherboard manufacturers showing their support for each company's new MMX-compatible chips. While it is fair to say that plenty of Taiwanese manufacturers had Pentium II systems on show, the cost of creating and producing Pentium II-based motherboards using the new Single Edge Connector (SEC) socket did appear to be an issue.
It likely that AMD and Cyrix will both see a stronger market for their higher end MMX-compatible processors as Taiwanese manufacturers try to extend the life of their existing Socket 7 motherboards. In addition, the strong positive reaction to AMD and Cyrix MMX-compatible motherboards may encourage Intel to consider continuing to upgrade its existing Pentium MMX range for longer than it had planned.
Another big trend to be gleaned from Computex is the opportunity that manufacturers see for selling equipment that allows users to carry out videoconferencing over standard telephone lines. The show was awash in small, low cost (between US $100 to $150 retail) digital video cameras that could be mounted alongside a PC.
The cameras typically could be added to a PC via a video capture card (also many on show) or through the parallel printer port. Taipei-based Cellvision, for example, was offering its Solcam CV-1500 CCD digital camera - with parallel port connection and software - at around $150. The company said that the camera fully supported most popular videoconferencing applications including Microsoft Net Meeting and Intel's Videophone.
Less expensive solutions using internal video capture cards (and sometimes 'combo' video cards with video capture, TV tuner and SVGA on a single card) were also available from a number of other Taiwanese manufacturers.
Another strong impression that you might have got from walking around Computex was that flat panel displays were getting ready to replace CRTs on the desktop. There were loads of 14-inch colour, DSTN and TFT flat panel monitors being show at this exhibition, with prices for entry level models starting at about US $1,500 in sample quantities (with retails prices expected at less than $2,000).
A few manufacturers also showed larger flat panel displays for use with desktop systems at higher prices. While prices for all the flat panel desktop displays are clearly much higher than their CRT counterparts, Taiwanese manufacturers say they are finding a strong market in the medical community, in industrial applications - and anywhere else that the low power and small size of the flat panel display makes it worth the premium price.
Probably the most high profile Taiwanese PC maker is Acer, which boasts more than $6 billion in annual revenues and had a great many new announcements to make at Computex.
Although known mainly for its desktop and notebook PCs, the company also showed off a large range of new scanners, monitors, specialized keyboards, LCD projectors, high speed CD-Rom drives - and announced plans to move into the GSM mobile phone market. The company also revealed that it was working on plans to introduce a low cost laser printer later this year.
Corporate users were being wooed with the company's new Acerpower Network Ready range of desktop PCs - which were released last month at starting prices of US $799 for a system with a 14-inch monitor, 133 MHz Pentium processor, built-in 3Com network interface card and 2.1gbytes hard drive.
Acer also unveiled the first fruits of its deal earlier this year to acquire Texas Instruments' notebook computer business: a scheme to allow mobile users to have wireless access to their company's Lan or Wan anywhere in an office or even a city.
According to Acer America senior vice president Steve Lair (who came to Acer from TI when Acer acquired the notebook business), the plan for this solution comes directly from research that TI carried out over the past year on just what users want from their 'mobile client/server' systems.
The company also showed off its new Acernote Light notebook systems - which went on sale in the US at the end of May for $1,999. These machines include a 150MHz Pentrium processor, a 10x CD-Rom, 16Mbytes of Ram, a 1.4Gbytes hard disk, 1Mbyte of video Ram, Soundblaster Pro-compatible audio and an 11.3+inch dual-scan SVGA colour LCD display.
Acer's move matches earlier announcements by both Compaq and IBM to ship more aggressively priced multimedia notebook computers and suggests that over the next six months we could see a major 'fire sale' of all notebooks that do not currently come standard with CD-Rom and sound.
In fact, Acer admitted that it currently faces what it calls a '3-6-1' product lifecycle for all its systems - where three months are spent designing new products, six months selling them and another month spent on clearing them from the distribution channel to make way for their replacement. The company says this leaves them little room for error or delays in shipping product.
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