Rival tablets emerge at Taipei fair
Taiwan's computer companies - long the component suppliers for better-known brands - are stepping out of the shadows at Taipei's big Computex show, with new lines of custom-made tablet PCs that could compete with Apple's iPad and those made by Samsung and Motorola.
Taiwan's normally low-profile Shuttle, for example, has produced PC motherboards since 1983. It knows how to hustle the massive local components supply chain, which saves import costs, and how to find software vendors. It has studied Apple, which leads the world tablet PC market with its iPads.
So, this week at Taipei's major annual computer show, Computex - a meeting place for 1,800 vendors and potentially 36,000 buyers - Shuttle put up a booth one day ahead of the official kick-off to secure the limelight. The company will promote its new N-series tablets, which are designed for schoolchildren, with waterproof material and write-by-hand functions.
Shuttle is vying for attention with about 50 other Computex tablet exhibitors including cross-town rivals Aaeon, Advantech, Elitegroup Computer Systems and FIC. They are largely chasing corporate buyers of the popular, lightweight mobile computers by offering you-order-it, we-build-it products instead of selling standardised tablets for the mass market as Apple, Samsung and Motorola do.
'In Taiwan, we have research and development experience and we're flexible,' said Shuttle marketing manager Tina Chang, citing a common refrain among Taiwan's tablet makers at Computex.
Taiwan tech firms will try to show that they can take on their big-name rivals either by customising tablets for business or designing them for mass markets, analysts said. They are adding USB ports and detachable keyboards, which iPads lack. And companies in Taiwan, a world technology powerhouse for 30 years, hope to avoid raising prices, sacrificing speed or cutting battery life, they add.
'This is an emerging market and the products so far are seldom seen,' said Tracy Tsai, principal analyst with the market research firm Gartner in Taipei.
'But the trend is towards more flexibility and more customisation.'
Taiwan's two biggest mass-market brands, Acer and Asustek Computer, have used Computex to promote tablets loaded with functions missing on the iPad, at prices near or lower than Apple's starting point at US$499. The devices may be heavier or thicker than iPads, but users want the functions anyway, company representatives said.
'We can figure out what they ignored and add it in,' said Asustek marketing specialist Wally Yang. Asustek's three tablet types launched this year come with USB ports, keyboard options and a docking device.
Asustek's fully Taiwan-designed Eee Pad Transformer is selling for as little as US$399. Apple tablets are expected to take a 69 per cent market share this year then decline to a 47 per cent share by 2015, Gartner says. Acer and Asustek are each aiming for at least 10 per cent of the world tablet market.
The Taiwanese formula often starts with Google's Android open-source operating system, which is popular in mobile devices and built for internet browsing and watching online movies. Designers with business customers in mind use Microsoft Windows instead, as it comes with Office software. Some, such as Taiwan manufacturer Gigabyte Technology's tablets, let users switch from one to the other.
The same firms may license a low-power microprocessor design from ARM Holdings, buy touch panels from a local manufacturer and build their own mature motherboard technology.
The package goes to a factory on the mainland for assembly.
Although the tablets are too new for rigorous product reviews, analysts see no immediate technical flaws. 'I think the basic functions are as good as Apple's,' said Peter Lin, Taipei-based analyst with market research firm IHS iSuppli.
The number of visitors expected at Computex
- The event opened yesterday and will run until Saturday