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February 2006

Cheap as chips

Imagine for a moment that you are a large Chinese PC manufacturer.  You wish to launch your branded PCs internationally.  Should you

(a) price your PCs at a premium to the market

(b) price your PCs at a similar level to HP & Acer

(c) go for low prices.  Sell more.  Get your brand recognition up.  Then perhaps increase prices.

Doh!  That's not hard, now is it?  Yet the front page of the SCMP Technology section is given over to a large "story" about Lenovo setting low prices for their desktops and laptops.  Apparently this might not be a good idea.  Of course it's a good idea, you idiots. 

The story is here if you have access to the very reasonably-priced SCMP website:

The first thing you notice about the Lenovo 3000 line of computers - the mainland company's first foray into the international market and a major milestone as it attempts to build global brand recognition - is the price: just US$350 for a desktop and US$600 for a laptop.

It is a curious move. China is not known for its brands. In places such as Europe and the United States, the mainland's reputation is mainly as the world's low-cost producer, an economy where companies compete not on technology or innovation but on price.

Why then would Lenovo price the 3000 line so cheaply? For a Chinese company trying to build an identity separate from IBM, whose PC business it bought for US$1.75 billion last year, debuting with a low-priced offering would seem risky.

"They really do need to be careful if they are trying to use price as an angle, especially if it is the first thing out of the barn and the first thing people hear is, `Hey, cheap products'," IDC analyst Bryan Ma said.

"One of the perceptions of China - which may or may not be true - and one of the perceptions of Chinese vendors is that they tend to participate in low cost, and low cost tends to be associated with low quality, and that is not the image that they would want to be projecting."

What are they on about?  Makes no sense at all.


Letter of the week

I enjoyed this letter in Saturday's SCMP:

If Colin Campbell finds it impractical to walk "halfway up The Peak", perhaps he and his rich neighbours could do their bit to save us all from an early grave by investing in a sedan chair and a couple of coolies. This would also leave their hands free for the sipping of champagne, smoking of cigars and spooning in of caviar. Alternatively, give the escalator a go. Perhaps your maids could collect you higher up and wheel you home.
ROBERT VERBURG, Central

Indeed.  Using a car in Hong Kong is a matter of choice - there are very few journeys that are impractical by public transport, and Mid-Levels to Central cannot possibly be one of them.  In fact, many journeys are more convenient by taxi than private car, and given that all taxis run on LPG that must also be be a more environmentally friendly solution.  Probably cheaper as well, because running a car is an expensive thing to do in Hong Kong.

Mind you, Colin Campbell tried to argue that using his car for this short journey "results in significantly less pollution than using a taxi":

Typically, of a morning, a taxi comes up to Mid-Levels empty and of an evening goes down to Central empty. It makes four trips to carry me. My car makes only two trips and remains in a garage while the taxi is cruising looking for other fares.

This is obviously nonsense - using a car for a short journey is surely the best way to waste fuel, and what's the betting that Colin Campbell has a gas-guzzling automobile?


Time to pay

In Hong Kong, listening to the radio really isn't an awfully attractive option.  So I'm all in favour of podcasts (though I wish someone would devise a better name for them). 

Obviously there's the Ricky Gervais podcasts.  Mainly rubbish, of course, but some of it very funny.  The first series has just finished, though I've only listened to the first 8 or 9 (out of 12).  At this point they were saying that they would take a break before doing some more.  Well, they seem to have changed their mind (as noted by Shaky) - and plan to cash in on the huge popularity of the first series by starting the second series immediately and charging for it. 

I don't have a problem with that, but it'll be interesting to see how many people are willing to pay.  They're charging about US$2 per show, which is not excessive (and it's gotta be more entertaining than two copies of the SCMP), but it's a lot more than free.

The BBC is also experimenting with podcasts.  These are free, and currently they are available to everyone (some of the BBC services are limited to UK residents only).  Details here

I also read somewhere that Amazon may offer downloads of CDs - so if you buy a CD you could also download the music to your PC or MP3 player.  I don't quite understand this - why can't record companies simply allow this for every CD?  What's so difficult about that?


Struggling

Vince from HKMacs has a short piece in today's SCMP about common problems people have when switching from Windows to the Mac.  I'm currently going through this learning curve myself, and so all advice is welcome.  Shaky has more on the same theme.

So far I'm liking the way that the active application has its menu bar at the top of the screen, and getting frustrated by the fact that some applications I use won't run on a Mac.

Oh, and wondering what I did wrong in installing OpenOffice - it is there but does nothing at all. 


TV on your PC

A few months ago I looked at HP's Media Centre PC and was completely underwhelmed by the quality of the TV picture.  Admittedly this was in Fortress, but even allowing for that it didn't seem at all promising.

Now Windows XP Media Edition has been officially launched in Hong Kong, and there are a wider range of PCs that want to sit in your living room and take the place of the TV. 

Fujitsu has a 32" model that looks absolutely stunning (and so it should for HK$28,800).  The picture quality on the video clip was excellent (though it seems to have the typical problem that LCD screens have with anything fast-moving) and it certainly appears to function as a normal PC - perfect for anyone who wants a really, really, large Excel spreadsheet (though you can already do this with an ordinary PC and a large monitor). 

A local company with the enigmatic name of Shooting have a range of PCs that are styled to look like DVD players.  If you've ever wanted a DVD recorder that takes five minutes to boot up then it should be just the job.

I'm not totally sure that the world is ready for a PC that is also a TV, but maybe there's a market for them if the price is right.  Which I reckon means less than HK$10k rather than nearly three times as much.  Still, the Fujitsu one does look very nice.         


Skin & Bones

Chicken chopped up into little pieces, each one with its own compliment of bone and skin. Don't get that all, and yet it's a mainstay of Chinese cooking.

If there are any mad scientists reading this, I'm kinda hoping that you could find a way to breed all animal and fish (all least the ones that we eat) so that they had no bones at all.

No, I didn't think so.  But maybe for intensively-reared chicken?  It would stop them getting anywhere near wild birds with Bird Flu, methinks.

Anyway, given the existence of bones, I have always found that the best approach is to serve the meat in large-enough pieces so that you can remove the flesh from the bone - rather than the other way around (picking out small pieces of bone from your meat).  Locals seemingly have no problem with this, having become very proficient at stuffing the food in their mouths and spitting out bones and anything else they don't plan to eat.  Sadly, I can't do that - hence my complaint.

And don't even get me started on chicken feet...   


Lotus Notes - what is it good for?

I remember that when Lotus Notes was released, it seemed that no-one knew quite what to do with it.  Everyone agreed that it was clever stuff, but maybe too clever for its own good, and what is was actually for, anyway?

Many years later, plenty of companies have found uses for it, but it must be one of the most hated pieces of widely-used software.  I have used it in two different companies, and whilst I concede that it can be a powerful tool for sharing information, it also drives most people crazy.

The fundamental problem seems to be that it has been designed by technical people, with little thought given to the user interface.  This is a critical flaw, because most of us remember how painful it is to use, and only grudgingly admit its strengths, which you don't even see if all you use are the email, calendar and 'To Do'  functions (which are inferior to Outlook).

So I have enjoyed reading Lotus Notes Sucks, a website devoted to listing many of the things that are wrong with Notes. 

Mind you, I have a list of my own complaints that aren't on this site, such as the fact that when you right-click it doesn't give you all the options you need.  On example of this is that if you select an email message you may wants to mark it as 'read' or 'unread'.  Outlook puts this on the right-click menu, but in Notes you have to go to the top menu and select Edit and then Unread Marks, and then choose what you want to do, which is just ridiculous. 

I know that everyone hates Microsoft, but you have to give them credit for making most of their software reasonably intuitive to use.  I appreciate that it's not really an option for other vendors to slavishly copy Microsoft's standards, but designing a willfully eccentric user interace is equally daft.  The really amazing thing is that Notes is still around and hasn't gone the way of Word Perfect, Lotus Smartsuite, etc. etc.  Maybe soon...       


Me too

From The Valley:

When I got home Mrs "The Valley" snatched the fruit from me as I walked in the door. She then retreated into the kitchen for a full inspection. After a few nervous moments she emerged holding a mandarin in the air and, with a surprised look, gave me the thumbs up. Phew! No bollocking this time - I can bask in the temporary glory of a menial job well done.

Yess...  I have been told in no uncertain terms that I am not allowed to choose oranges.  Only women can do this, apparently.  What a puzzling world we live in.

I have added The Valley to my list of HK Blogs, and made a few other changes.  There really wasn't any point in linking to Mackered when it has disappeared.  So my theory was correct, but I just picked the wrong blog as an example.


Over-thinking

Some tasks on The Apprentice just scream out 'product placement'.  It's almost as if the producers are willing to organize any old task as long as it suits their sponsors.

Hence we had the weirdest task so far - the teams were asked to select an unsigned singer, write a song with him and then record a demo.  Both would be played on XM Cafe, which is apparently an alternative rock channel (one of a mere 150 channels available on subscription from XM Radio).  Did I mention that it is on XM Radio?  Oh, I did.

Simple and straightforward task.  Three steps

  1. Find an artist who would be at home on XM Cafe
  2. Write a song that would fit with the format of XM Cafe
  3. Record the song in a style that would fit with XM Cafe

Nothing else to worry about.  No surprise that Team Excel over-thought the task and decided that they would "challenge" the audience by finding an R&B artist.  No surprise that the audience and the executives didn't really want to be challenged. 

Capital Edge seemed to be more aware of what was required, and had the sense to remind the artist and the producer that they didn't want any of that funny jazz sound thanks very much.  They won.  Clay was fired for being the most irritating contestant left.