A vast array of product was on display, including offerings for cloud computing, 3D printing, security and surveillance, and gaming.
Computex 2015, this year’s edition of the Taipei-based trade fair that has become the world’s premier showcase for the ICT supply chain, offered a revealing look at the trends moving the industry. Attracting some 1,702 exhibitors ranging from the largest domestic and international firms, including Microsoft, Intel, and Acer, to some 1,000 small- and medium-sized firms (SMEs) from Taiwan’s sprawling tech sector, the expo spotlighted the linkages between the high-profile brands and their suppliers.
Taiwan is home to over 2,000 companies in the tech sector. Many of them are unsung heroes manufacturing the array of mundane but vital products that keep the tech revolution going, including cables to connect with the cloud, power supplies for PCs, and sensors that make possible the Internet of Things.
The expo attracted over 130,000 visitors this year, a 1.16% increase over 2014. The international visitors numbered 39,130, coming from 162 countries around the world, primarily China, the United States, and Japan.
The atmosphere at this year’s event in early June was as festive as ever, with scantily clad showgirls doing their best to make memory chips sexy, and visitors clamoring for swag giveaways and the chance to sign a girl’s cleavage. Yet opinions varied on whether Computex retains its cachet in the tech world.
“This year is very good,” said Eric Chang, marketing specialist with Taiwanese vehicle electronics maker Acrosser Technology Co., conveying a positive point of view. “A lot of people have stopped by our booth and expressed strong interest in our products. Around the show there are a lot of new technologies that are going to change people’s lives.”
Nala Tsai, product and marketing specialist for Avexir, a Taiwan company specializing in gaming components and accessories such as memory modules and highly stylized PC cases known as “case mods,” concurred that business “is better than last year.”
The official statistics back up the rosy impressions. The expo attracted over 130,000 visitors this year, a 1.16% increase over 2014. The international visitors numbered 39,130, coming from 162 countries around the world, primarily China, the United States, and Japan. According to the Computex website, the more than 120 speeches and forums attracted some 11,000 attendees, and that more than 4,000 procurement meetings were held.
On the other hand, many exhibitors expressed disappointment with Computex 2015. A representative from Holitech, a Chinese manufacturer of touch panels, said that that sales and company introductions were both scant compared to similar shows in China. “Actually we didn’t come with the aim of getting a lot of customers,” she said. “We just want to make a bridge to our Taiwanese co-workers. But what I see here is that we don’t have many business opportunities, and even our overseas customers are not so many. I’m wondering whether we will join the expo next year. I think not.”
While Taiwanese makers were generally guardedly optimistic about the expo, many of the representatives from Chinese firms were decidedly downbeat.
Several factors may account for the different points of view on the relative success of this year’s Computex. The Consumer Electronics Association, the American organizer of the biggest tech expo in the world, the Consumer Electronics Show held every January in Las Vegas, launched a Shanghai edition of the event at the end of May, indicating the inexorable rise of China’s tech sector and perhaps stealing some of Computex’s thunder. Discussions with exhibitors also showed that while Taiwanese makers were generally guardedly optimistic about the expo, many of the representatives from Chinese firms were decidedly downbeat.
To what extent that difference represents divergent political points of view and how much they reflect business realities is an open question. Taiwan’s tech exports are down slightly in 2015, for a variety of reasons ranging from a harsh winter in the United States to the crisis in Greece, but possibly also including the growing competition for Taiwanese-made advanced electronic components from Chinese-made products.
Taiwanese makers are responding to these challenges by upgrading their technologies and revamping their business models. Some are seeking to outperform their rivals on quality and price, while others are trying to go upstream by offering systems integration and even own-branding to improve revenues.
The big brands got most of the attention of the tech press at Computex, but with SMEs accounting for the vast majority of companies in Taiwan’s tech industry, TOPICS looked at some of the subsectors where smaller suppliers are making their mark.
With increasing amounts of data being stored in some sort of data center or server farm, cloud computing is one of the biggest trends in computing today, even as many customers remain concerned about such issues as ease of use, efficiency, and affordability. For many Taiwanese manufacturers, however, the growth of cloud computing means a huge spike in demand for cables – cables to bring the data into the server farm, and more cables to connect the servers in the stacks. And not just any cable will do; they must be high-speed connectors capable of carrying vast amounts of data.
All Best Electronics, for example, manufactures heavy-duty high-speed connectors for sale to the contract manufacturers in Taiwan and China that are building the systems ordered by global brands such as Amazon and Google. Although company representative Sebastian Hsieh says “competition is really serious” in the market, he notes that sales are rising. “The cloud is good for us,” said Hsieh. “People need higher speed, and we provide the cables.”
Cables are an important part of Taiwan’s tech industry, so when major brand Apple decides to change its standard for USB connectors to the new, smaller USB-C, industry scrambles to bring out offerings that meet the specification. The new USB-C connector was on display at several booths in Computex. Smaller and thinner than the previous version, the new connector promises increased ease of use and faster speeds. The new standard has not yet been adopted by many companies other than Apple, though. As the representative of a company exhibiting the new product observed: “Everybody is interested in it, but nobody really needs it for now.”
The Delta 3D printers from startup manufacturer Atom 2.0 is aimed at the tech-literate consumer and even the “prosumer” – hobbyists who want to turn their ideas into marketable products. The company offers more than just a product, as it stands at the center of a community of like-minded hobbyists and offers web seminars and training as part of its service.
The Kinpo Group, by contrast, is occupying a range of markets – including offering two inexpensive 3D printers targeted at ordinary consumers and schools. The goal is to “make 3D printers affordable and accessible for regular users that are not as tech savvy,” said a company spokesperson. To popularize the concept of “additive manufacturing,” Kinpo has developed a “food printer” that extrudes soft ingredients to build pizzas and other food items. Kinpo reps said that they hadn’t originally planned to commercialize the product, but reception at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was so overwhelming that the company is planning to launch the product commercially next year, possibly in Japan first.
Security on the IoT
Based on connected household items that communicate with one another other and their homeowners’ smartphones, the Internet of Things (IoT) promises greater convenience, safety, and comfort for consumers. Pervasive connectivity is already being increasingly seen in a variety of industries, ranging from manufacturing (where Industry 4.0 is introducing machines that communicate in real time with other machines and are able to make decisions based upon varying conditions and resource availability) to medical care in the form of connected pacemakers and insulin pumps for ease of monitoring and control. These systems promise greater efficiency and reliability, and the trend continues into critical infrastructure such as nuclear and conventional power plants.
Modern cars contain millions of lines of code – “more than Windows” – and three Local Area Networks (LANs), each vulnerable to hacking or infection.
At the same, the multitude of connections increases the risk of internet hacking. In a presentation during Computex entitled “Things gone Wild: IoT Security and What it Means to You,” Diana Kelley, executive security adviser to IBM Security, stressed how each layer of connectivity brings its own security threat. She noted that modern cars contain millions of lines of code – “more than Windows” – and three Local Area Networks (LANs), each vulnerable to hacking or infection.
Another presentation, “Security and Authentication in the Era of IoT” by Andrew Russell, vice president of marketing in Greater China for NXP, described how IoT devices wed Operations Technology (the “very specific” embedded software that controls devices) and Information Technology (“which is really about being open and exchanging information”). The marriage between the two exposes operational technology to hacking or infection. The Stuxnet virus launched by the U.S. military that successfully damaged Iran’s nuclear labs is the most prominent example.
Further, IoT devices are easily discoverable. Russell noted the existence of websites that reveal all the IoT devices currently in use.
Both speakers enjoined Taiwan’s budding IoT manufacturers to manage the risks of infection and hacking at every layer of connectivity. “We’ve got a bunch of different threat surfaces and you need to think about each one of them separately,” said Kelley. “Make sure you build security in as you’re building the systems.”
Security and Surveillance
The recent spate of violence by police officers in the United States against unarmed citizens – especially African-Americans – has generated resounding calls for more law-enforcement personnel to be required to wear body cameras. Within days of President Obama’s recent call for cops to wear body cameras, stock prices for companies making such equipment surged in anticipation of sudden big demand.
Transcend, which is known mainly for its consumer memory products, also introduced a dash cam that covers both front and rear windshields, aimed at enabling drivers to protect themselves from lawsuits and police misconduct.
Taiwanese makers have taken notice. At Computex 2015, Transcend Information introduced its first ever body camera, the Drive Pro Body 10. According to the company, the product features a wide-angle lens, snapshot button, and even infrared LED night vision, “ideal for police officers.” Transcend, which is known mainly for its consumer memory products, also introduced a dash cam that covers both front and rear windshields, aimed at enabling drivers to protect themselves from lawsuits and police misconduct.
Acrosser Technology, a maker of in-vehicle computers, promoted its offering of fleet logistics management solutions for police forces. A representative at the company’s booth said its system is designed to “monitor and give a precise record of every police officer’s radio calls and locations at all times, to check their performance.”
KGuard Security is another manufacturer that is evolving from simply making a product – security cameras – to being a systems integrator. It combines surveillance cameras and alarm systems into total security systems, complete with a smartphone app that gives the home-owner complete access to the camera feeds and alarm status. KGuard sells the wireless DIY systems under its own brand and says it is doing particularly well in the United States and South Africa. The system is password-protected and its high definition cameras allow the homeowner to see exactly who is on the premises.
Taiwan also has an expanding gaming accessories industry, embodied by producers such as G.Skill International Enterprise, Xigmatek, and Chieftec. These manufacturers offer everything from advanced keyboards made from steel and carbon fiber to flashy PC “case mods” to high-powered memory products and processors. G.Skill hosted an international competition in advanced processing at Computex, with competitors from around the world pushing their computers to ever faster speeds, using steaming liquid nitrogen bubbling through neon tubes as a coolant to prevent meltdowns. A crowd of fans cheered, a DJ spun records, and dancing girls urged the competitors on.
The array of market segments being serviced and issues discussed was vast, and with the numbers of visitors increasing, Computex will likely retain its prominence in the global technology supply chain.