Attendance falls but Android dazzles

Netbooks, smartbooks, CULV laptops and other gadgets captured widespread attention this week

The Computex Taipei 2009 electronics show ended Saturday after a week-long display of new gadgets, including netbooks, ultra thin laptops made with new Intel chips and several surprises surrounding Google's Android mobile phone operating system.

The show's final numbers were down nearly across the board from last year, but not by much considering the global recession and fears surrounding the H1N1 swine flu.

An estimated 100,000 people visited Computex Taipei 2009 from around the world, down slightly from 106,517 last year, according to figures from the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA).

The totals include 32,178 international buyers, down from 34,685 last year and 1,712 exhibitors, down compared to 1,750. The only figure that improved was the amount of booths rented, which rose to 4,498 this year, from around 4,000 last year.

The 2008 comparison figures were taken from last year's closing press release from Computex, important to note because show organizers did not offer the figures on the 2009 press release, instead saying most of the 2009 numbers were up between 1 percent and 5 percent over last year.

A TAITRA official was unable to immediately explain the discrepancy in the figures.

Chinese companies at Computex's first ever China pavilion complained deal-making was slower than they had expected.

Chinese network equipment maker Shenzhen Yichen Technology Development found 30 percent to 40 percent more buyers at the show last year compared to this year, a representative manning the company's booth said on the last day of Computex.

The representative blamed the economic downturn for what he said was a smaller turnout at the exhibition than last year.

The aisles of Chinese company booths were empty compared to other areas of the exhibition.

This was the first year Chinese companies were officially welcomed at Computex, though JCG was one of a group that attended last year by registering as Hong Kong-based companies.

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.

Over 130 Chinese companies had booths this year, according to TAITRA.

One first-time exhibitor, southern Chinese laptop vendor and designer Guangzhou Darling Industrial, also perceived a low turnout. The company did not secure the four to five business partners it expected to find, said a representative at the company's booth.

The company also hoped to form partnerships with companies from outside Taiwan, but Taiwanese businesses were the main attendees, she said.

The company has not decided if it will attend next year, she said.

Some companies blamed the sluggish global economy for the apparent lack of deals, while other said fear of the swine flu may have kept potential buyers away.

Taiwan put several measures in place to guard against swine flu, including hand wipe stations at the front doors of the exhibition areas and infrared scanners capable of detecting fevers via heat that international airline passengers had to walk past on their way to passport control.

The number of new gadgets and announcements did not show any signs of slowdown from last year.

Computex served as a coming out party for Google's Android mobile operating system in devices outside the smartphones for which it was designed.

Mobile phone chip maker Qualcomm showed off a previously unannounced version of Asustek Computer's Eee PC based on its Snapdragon processor and running the Android OS.

Asustek pioneered netbooks and has used other Linux OSes in its netbooks in the past, but prior to Computex it had almost completely changed over to Microsoft Windows XP, which is the most popular OS for netbooks.

The new Eee PC also lacked the Intel Atom microprocessors that have become ubiquitous in netbooks. Instead the device, which is thinner and lighter than current members of Asustek's Eee PC netbook lineup, uses a Snapdragon chip with a 1GHz ARM processing core.

The chips use less electricity and give off less heat than Atoms, so the mini-laptops they're in do not require cooling systems such as heat sinks or fans.

Qualcomm, Freescale Semiconductor and Texas Instruments call the devices smartbooks. The smartbooks on display at Computex looked a lot like netbooks, with 10-inch screens and full keyboards, but they can run for eight hours on a three-cell battery, compared to two or three hours for a netbook with a three-cell battery.

One potential benefit of the devices aside from their long battery life is easy connectivity to mobile phone networks for wireless Internet surfing. But one downside is that since they use ARM microprocessors instead of x86 processors such as Atom, they will miss out on the huge library of software made for x86 chips, though software can always be revamped to run on the ARM processors.

Elitegroup Computer Systems (ECS) also showed off a smartbook running Android, on chips from Texas Instruments.

Acer may become the first company to put out a netbook with Android in the third quarter of this year if it can beat some rivals, such as China's Guangzhou Skytone Transmission Technologies, which has said its Android netbook is undergoing final testing.

What's unique about Acer's new Aspire One netbook with Android is that the processor inside is an Intel Atom, not an ARM-based chip. Acer worked with a Taiwanese Linux distributor to port Android over to x86 processors, a first for the OS.

Not to be left out, MIPS Technologies worked with software developer Embedded Alley to port Android to the MIPS chip architecture, which the companies also showed on devices at Computex.

Several other companies displayed their first-ever Android-based gadgets, including Inventec Appliances, which showed a smartphone and handheld computer and Kinpo, which displayed a handheld computer. Other vendors such as BenQ, Micro-Star International (MSI) and Garmin-Asus vowed to catch up with Android-based products of their own.

There were a number of other notable devices shown off at Computex, including thin, light laptops created around Intel's CULV (consumer ultra low voltage) microprocessors from every major Taiwanese producer, such as Acer's Timeline laptop series and Asustek's U-series.

New netbook designs were on show, including Gigabyte Technology's TouchNote T1028 netbook running Microsoft Windows 7 and sporting a 10.1-inch touchscreen that swivels around and folds down to transform it into a tablet PC. Other netbooks and nettops with Nvidia Ion graphics chips inside were available at several booths, while e-book devices were also out in force.

One nice aspect of Computex is that unlike other trade shows that show off concept devices and cutting edge technologies that may never make it to market, the majority of what's shown in Taipei is on store shelves ahead of year-end holidays.

(Sumner Lemon and Martyn Williams contributed to this report.)

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