I sure hope Bill Carney likes the weather in Taiwan.
No, hes not here in Taipei with me. Not far as I know, anyway. But he gets my congratulations: The Wi-Fi Alliance couldnt easily have picked a better new chairman—if it had to lose Dennis Eaton—than the senior director of strategic marketing and business development at Texas Instruments Wireless Networking business unit.
But Bill Carney wont be sleeping well if he wanders around the booths here at the Computex show in Taipei, where Ive just spent a week.
Last year, all of the Wi-Fi gear here had chips from the big American suppliers: TI, Broadcom, Conexant (formerly Intersil), Agere and so on. But this year, local silicon designers are getting their noses into the trough.
Each system builder I discussed this with said its very simple, really: Its about access.
“We have to pay $50,000 for the full development system for the American chipmakers,” said one candid startup. Hes hoping to be able to afford that one day; he has a really neat idea for a voice-over-Wi-Fi system, which should allow him to retire young if hes got it even half right.
But right now, thats pretty much his first years capital. He has some prototyping to do. He cant finance that out of revenue, because he has no revenue—indeed, if he couldnt camp out in his parents house, hed have no R&D at all, because he cant drive a taxi to pay the rent and design circuits in his spare time.
The big, established chip designers wont even let him see the programming manual.
Here he is, trying to write a Linux driver for a device he has to support, and for which he has to make some standard mods, and the people who sell the device wont help him.
“So, we are buying our stuff from a local company,” he said, “because we can do serious development.”
They were often quite shy about saying which local company, but after a little digging, Im pretty clear that its “California-based” InProComm that theyre working with. I dare say there are and will be others.
Take it from me: The established companies need to erode some of their arrogance. But its not just arrogance.
Heck, Carney doesnt have to end up working in Taiwan. Several brilliant designers who are paid by the Taiwanese are allowed to stay in Austin, Texas—hi to Glenn Henry, designer of Centaurs processor chips for VIA—and Bill has a support circle of guys in the same state without whom he couldnt do half as good a job as he does.
But lets look into the future of wireless. Its not that different from the future of PCs. We saw New York and Boston watch, skeptically, as California created Silicon Valley—and yet, within a decade, all of the technical experts in microcomputer design were West Coast folks.
And then they started building the silicon in the Far East, and suddenly, people with Japanese and Indian and Chinese names started appearing on the boards of big Silicon Valley firms.
I think the reason isnt just as simple as “new guys are always prepared to treat the customers better.” Obviously, I think they are treating the customers better, because they have to, no question. If you want to wean a customer off an established market leader, you have to compete in the realm of enthusiasm.
But theres more to it than that. The fact is that if you have a production plant, you cant leave the factory workers to run it. You need highly qualified engineers, and they teach the people around them how to do things. Quickly, their apprentices become competent; the best of them are eager, hungry, energetic and dedicated, and become brilliant.
When the time comes to replace your original factory manager, who are you going to pick? Some American or European PhD with a huge benefits package and expectations, who doesnt speak Chinese? Or the undervalued genius who actually knows how the factory works, knows the staff and has been personally responsible for at least half of the brilliant ideas his boss has been claiming credit for during the previous five years?
Well, sometimes youll hire the expensive figurehead, and sometimes the local kid will get the job; and after that, its up to the laws of evolution. My pick: The PC designers of the year 2025 all will be people who are currently studying hard in Chinese universities.
So, if Bill doesnt have to move to Taiwan, theres probably a simple reason why. Itll be because Taiwan has started outsourcing its production to mainland China, the same way California exported it to Taiwan.
And for another five years, I bet all of the senior managers sent into rural mainland China from Taipei headquarter offices will be Taiwanese. But after that, if you and I want to design wireless gear, our future is in a tower block in Beijing.
Well, thats Bills future, no doubt. Hes an engineer, and theyll want to employ him even if he doesnt speak Mandarin. Me: Id better start studying …