If you take the lift and stop off at the many floors of the World Trade Centre in Taipei, Taiwan, it certainly gives you a feel for the nature of business on the small island. Unlike its larger neighbour, South Korea, Taiwan remains dominated not by large conglomerates but small families, making everything from motherboards to sportswear.
But that could be the country's strength, rather than its weakness, especially in terms of the current economic crisis. The Taiwanese may have realised it is impossible for them to compete by making monitors - faced by large Japanese and South Korean companies that can knock products out at big plants on a global basis - but the tiny island remains the third largest country in the world in IT terms, with a market share estimated at $30 billion to $35 billion.
The small family concerns, too, are able to change their ways quickly.
Although few companies are known outside Taiwan, the fact is that their customers are large OEMs, which often use products from the island rebranded for their different markets.
At this year's Computex show in Taipei, there was a glut of products in different areas demonstrating the speed with which small companies can adapt to new trends.
While the companies were still demonstrating the motherboards and memory modules which are Taiwan's bread and butter, the latest designs seemed to centre around set-top boxes.
Mitac introduced its internet set-top box, Mitac Web, a joint development with UK chipset vendor MSU. It is aimed at a global OEM market and while Mitac wants to sell the product to the Chinese mainland, it has already clinched deals with a number of OEMs worldwide. The product is available for both NSTC and Pal television specifications.
Competing with this is Sampo, which has adopted a design that originated with Diba, a company now owned by Sun Microsystems. Its STB-21 can be used with both common formats and can also be connected to local area networks or telephone networks. A number of smaller Taiwanese players were also demonstrating set-top box motherboards on their stands.
There was also a big emphasis on PC cards, whether as memory devices, video conferencing products or card readers. A company called Prestico was showing its reader which, it claims, is used by the US government as part of an authentication system. Card readers can capture images from digital cameras at a far greater speed than the usual serial port. Compaq is set to use another of the company's designs later this year.
Carry Computer showed a capture card and a camera - both aimed at the notebook market. It also makes a number of products that connect to external hard drives, as well as flash memory products.
Another company, Kingmax, was showing flash memory products. These are aimed at the PC, personal digital assistant and digital camera markets, and the company also has MPeg playback, Lan and fax/modem units. Backed by Taiwanese investment, including the China Development, Kingmax forecasts it will grow its business by 100 per cent in 1998.
Video conferencing was a hot topic at the show, with a number of businesses showing bundles they are hoping to sell to distributors and PC vendors.
Tekram was showing its On Camera video bundle, which comes with camera, adaptor card and bundled software. It conforms to ITU standards and is expected to be a low-price affair.
Meanwhile, Animation was displaying its low-priced Fly Cam CCD camera, which will achieve over 400 pixels this year, while Asia Microelectronic Development displayed a video camera that uses a parallel rather than a serial interface.
The Taiwanese trade association, Cetra, says while monitors may be performing poorly, this is balanced by the big opportunity to sell notebooks and notebook peripherals. Acer was showing a small Travelmate machine, which came with either a 233MHz or 266MHz Pentium MMX processor.
A number of smaller companies were also showing similar, small form factor notebooks. It is certain that we will see some of the larger OEMs adopt the units towards the end of this year.
Scanners have always been lucrative for Taiwanese manufacturers. Mustek - which claims nearly 30 per cent of the market worldwide - Umax, Microtek and Plustek were all showing their developments. A company called Spot Technology displayed an ultra-thin flatbed unit, which is 2in high, comes with software, scans at 600x1200dpi and has USB connections.
Microsoft, Intel and the other large players in the industry have all decreed that the industry is to move to USB and judging by the large number of products shown at Computex, that will happen.
But Taiwanese manufacturers are also taking an interest in networking and telecoms products. According to the country's own figures, cord and cordless phones accounted for over $500 million in 1997, a growth rate of over 17 per cent from the year before.
Companies, including RPTI International and Planet Technology, also showed hubs and switches, both with Fast Ethernet. Prices are rock bottom and set to profit from the products' commoditisation.
While many consider that modem prices could not fall much lower, many smaller companies were showing V90 units which came in both PC card and standalone form factors.
While Taiwan is concerned about the effect on revenues of the trend towards cheaper PCs, it still thinks it can take advantage of it. The usual rash of case manufacturers, low-end motherboard companies and those offering inexpensive but powerful clone graphics boards were on display around the halls. While that continues, it is likely that Taiwan will continue to thrive from its small business model, rather than suffer.
IT continues to be the driving force behind the island's success. Unlike many of its neighbours, it has thus far weathered economic storms and while there are worries about whether mainland China will take back a territory it has always claimed, the number of foreign visitors, both distributors and OEMs, seem to suggest that its products will continue to appear.
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