Show sidesteps slump, swine flu on Android hopes

Many people are coming to Computex to see Android netbooks and will likely find a whole lot more in small devices

Threats from the outbreak of swine flu and the weak global economy don't appear to be a problem for one of the world's largest computer and electronics exhibitions.

Computex Taipei 2009 prepared for both but has found that an overwhelming interest in new products this year is driving people to the trade show, which has been held in Taiwan since 1981.

One of the main draws for Computex this year is the likely appearance of mini-laptops, or netbooks, with Google's Android mobile operating system on board. China's Guangzhou Skytone Transmission Technologies, revealed its Android netbook, the Alpha 680 last month and has said it's due out in June.

Taiwanese companies including Acer, Asustek Computer and Micro-Star International (MSI) have all reportedly been working on netbooks and other devices that take Android as the OS, and other companies have likely done so as well. The Institute for Information Industry (III) in Taiwan, a publicly funded group, held a conference earlier this year to discuss a range of possibilities for Android and urged Taiwanese companies to start developing products around the mobile software.

But there are reasons to doubt an Android netbook will be on the market soon after Computex. Skytone says a lot of development work is required to put Android in a netbook. The software is made for smartphones, not mini-laptops, so it lacks certain features necessary for a netbook or similar device. For example, Skytone had to develop a mouse icon for its netbook.

Still, the devices are among the most highly anticipated of the show.

Mini-laptops in all shapes and sizes, in fact, will be the centerpiece of Computex. New laptops designed around ULV (ultra-low voltage) microprocessors from Intel are expected to be everywhere at the show. Acer, Asustek, MSI and others have already announced products around the chips. The laptops are thin, light and designed for 8-hours of batter life. One of the main selling points that sets them apart from netbooks is their larger screens, such as the Acer Aspire Timeline's 13.3-inch, 14-inch and 15.6-inch models. Netbooks generally carry screens 10-inches and smaller.

There should also be new netbooks shown at Computex made with chips using cores from Arm Holdings instead of microprocessor king Intel. Qualcomm, for example, plans to show off new products based on its SnapDragon chipsets, which contain ARM cores. These are the kinds of devices that might have Android software on board because they're made using mobile phone components. One potential advantage to such netbooks is substantially better battery life than netbooks made using PC industry components. There haven't been any third party tests done on such devices yet, however.

The prospect of products like these, which are outselling almost all others save, perhaps, smartphones, appears to be drawing a lot of people to Taiwan despite the global recession and threat of swine flu.

"In the face of the global slowdown, Computex still managed to grow," said Moses Yen, director of exhibitions at the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA).

Over 1,700 exhibitors have rented 4,498 booths this year, up from around 4,000 booths last year. There are, however, fewer exhibitors than the 1750 from last year. One big difference this year is the presence of more Chinese companies, which will have their own pavilion. Political differences between Taiwan and China have kept the presence of Chinese firms to a minimum in the past, but growing bonds between people in both places has turned out to be a boon for business.

Taiwan has several measures in place to guard against swine flu, including infrared scanners capable of detecting fevers via heat that passengers will walk past on their way to passport control. Anyone with a fever will be taken to a medical center in the airport.

Computex officers have added to those measures with some of their own. Free alcohol sterilization washes will be available in Computex halls, face masks will be available and major entrances will also be equipped with infrared scanners to spot suspected flu cases, according to TAITRA.. Doctors and nurses will be available on site at both the Taipei exhibition halls and in the Nangang halls.

The prospect of Android at the show has also brought in other software vendors.

A Linux forum will run concurrently with Computex, with Android, SUSE Linux and netbook-rival Moblin up for discussion. Microsoft will be on hand to talk up Windows 7 and its mobile initiatives as well.

Finally, to keep up with the mobile trend, Taiwan has organized a WiMax forum and pavilion within Computex, and another pavilion set up to display products either developed with environmental issues at heart or to promote power savings, the use of nontoxic materials and other eco-friendly initiatives.

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Dan Nystedt

IDG News Service
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