Computex, the biggest IT show in Asia, attracted 130,000 visitors to Taipei. An incredible amount of hardware was on display and, when mixed with the stifling heat and humidity of Taiwan in June, it is pretty overwhelming.
But while it is true there was some impressive kit on show, I couldn’t help noticing there wasn’t a great deal in the way of true innovation on display. ATi unveiled its CrossFire dual graphics, but that’s a reaction to nVidia’s SLI, which is itself a hark back to ATi’s own Rage Fury MAXX and, before that, Voodoo 2 SLI way back in 1998.
Granted, Computex is more of a component manufacturers’ event than a consumer electronics show. But that does not justify why so many of the pieces of hardware on show both looked and felt so cheap.
One of Samsung’s vice presidents recently told me that if you want to lose money these days, the best way to do it is start an airline, and the next best way is to get into the computer business. He had his tongue partially in his cheek: Samsung made $10 billion net profit last year. But most of that profit was in mobile phones, not computers. The computer industry is so cut-throat that it is very difficult for all but the biggest players to compete on anything but price. PC vendors routinely work on profits of 5 per cent; in other words, they will make £35 when they sell you a £700 PC. As soon as there is a problem with it under warranty, that margin evaporates.
The tiny profits in the PC industry mean that, however interesting the concepts a designer comes up with, those ideas are likely to be realised in a piece of PC hardware that looks good from a distance, less so close up, and falls over completely when you realise the brushed aluminium is paper-thin or, more often, aluminium-effect plastic. This happened to me several times in Taipei.
It wasn’t until I was actually leaving Taiwan that I happened upon a computer that really knocked my socks off, both for its technology and its design. Waiting in Taipei Chiang Kai-Shek international airport, thoroughly bored, I walked past the sparse row of shops before the departure gates and saw Sony’s new PSP (PlayStation Portable) handheld game console, due to hit these shores in September. With an hour and a half still to wait for my flight, I handed over my credit card and asked the assistant to charge it for me behind the counter. After an hour I picked it up and was so amazed and engrossed by it, I nearly missed my flight. The PSP is amazing; it gives you hardware with the power of a full-size arcade machine or PC of maybe four years ago. And it is beautiful both to look at and touch; it is like a mock-up prop from a science-fiction film, but it is real.
And all this from a device that, with the current exchange rate, cost me about £155: in UK shops, it will be about £180. There is no way that Sony is making money on the hardware itself. You only have to look at the cost of Windows Portable Media Center-based devices from the likes of iRiver and Creative to see this. The only aspect of their hardware that surpasses the PSP is their large hard disks. Their screens are notably inferior, but they still cost about £200 more than the PSP.
So for a relatively tiny amount of money, Sony has produced a near-flawless, beautifully built device that brings out the techno fetishist in everyone who sees it. The enabling factor is obvious: the licensing fees from the games are where its profits will lie. But the PC industry, with its unlicensed hardware model, cannot pull off the same trick. Can it pull itself up by its bootstraps and avoid spiralling into the abyss of ever-slimmer margins and built-to-the-bottom-line hardware? Possibly. When I met him a few months ago, VIA’s president Wenchi Chen mentioned Apple several times with something akin to envy in his voice: the word wouldesign’ put a glimmer in his eye. Samsung is thinking along similar lines, with an aim to move from a commodity manufacturer into the realm of a high-performance, design-focused, high-margin company. They want to make money, bless them, and they will do it by making devices people will pay for.