I just returned from a trip to China to review Lenovo?s recent purchase of IBM?s personal computer division. This was my first trip to China, which clearly is a progressive country advancing at a breakneck pace, and the West should be aware of this growing competition. However, for the consumer it means that lower-cost products of adequate quality will be increasingly coming out of the country (much like it was with Japan in the 1960s and 1970s)?and some of the stuff is actually very exciting.
One of the big concerns surrounding Chinese goods is the impression that the quality is sub-standard. Waking around the streets of Beijing, you can see how that impression is generated by the knock-off products sold there. If you weren?t an expert, you could easily be taken by a sub-standard product in an attractive package. For instance, I was able to buy three fake Rolex Watches and a nice pack of greeting cards for $12. Before I even made it to the bus, one of the watches had stopped working and I wasn?t able to figure out how to set any of them.
However, if you were careful on the streets, you could find goods that were of a quality equal to almost anything in the world!
Linux Losing to DOS
Interestingly, more than 90% of the PCs sold in China do not go out with Windows. While a large number of these used to go out with Linux, the Linux shipments have all but evaporated and have been replaced by DOS. This would suggest that Linux can?t even compete with DOS, but it doesn?t tell the whole story. It seems that it is faster to image a PC with DOS and it is easier to upgrade a PC from DOS than it is from Linux. And with Windows selling at $.50 a copy, people have no wish to pay full price for Windows or get Linux for free.
I?m waiting to see how the numbers houses like IDC and Gartner report this fact; they derive their numbers from shipments, and China ships a huge number of PCs every year. If they report this accurately, they should show a massive decline in Linux shipments coupled with a massive increase in DOS shipments, which ought to make the front page someplace.
I?m hearing an increasing number of stories about malware (like Keyloggers) being built into these pirated versions of Windows; they form the strongest barrier to adopting any platform that is competitive. It would seem that everyone, including Linux supporters and Apple, would like Microsoft?s pirating problem to go away. I understand that pirated copies of Office are killing the low cost competitors in China?and other parts of the world that don?t enforce Intellectual Property rights.
Cool Products from Lenovo
From what I saw while in China, I found Lenovo to be only slightly below IBM in quality and generally rated more highly than most of the PC firms selling in China. I walked their lines and found their practices to be consistent with other tier one companies with regard to consumer products. Given how ex-IBM executives would be driving the corporate side, I expect the related products to continue to meet the IBM standard.
A number of products Lenovo currently has in China will move to the rest of the world; several were actually really cool. My personal favorite was a Microsoft Mobile phone, similar in capability to an iPAQ but vastly smaller. It was one of the coolest phones I have ever seen using the Microsoft technology. If and when it enters the US, it could clearly give PalmOne a run for the money.
Second to the phone was a 13.3? widescreen laptop computer in brilliant white with translucent keys (I am becoming convinced that the ideal screen size for a laptop you can take on the road is either 13.3 or 14? wide format.) Looking as if it had come off an Apple manufacturing line, this product had several unique design elements and an aggressive price that could make it very attractive to the back-to-school crowd. It would be really hard not to choose a product like this at anywhere near the expected $1,000 US price point.
Lenovo?s Media Center, like PCs, was the closest I?ve seen to the market-leading HP designs; they too were at aggressive price points. One interesting accessory was a VOIP (Voice over IP) handset that embedded a flash memory multi-reader. This is arguably the best I have seen in a consumer-oriented accessory of this type and it showcased the unique innovation going on at Lenovo.
The wildest PC was a competitor to Dell?s market-leading XPS gaming box. The case opened up as if it were cloned from Apple, and the optional Hot Red really caught my eye. The overall industrial design wasn?t exactly to my taste, but it was the strongest effort I?ve seen to build a product like this outside of Dell?s XPS (which was better, but also clearly much more expensive.)
Finally, they had one of the nicest Tablet PCs I have ever seen. This was a clam shell design similar to Toshiba?s, and the fit and finish appeared to be on par with that market leader. This suggests that Lenovo, which clearly rejects the ?not invented here? attitude, is perfectly willing to copy and cost reduce from the best and enhance the result with their own design efforts. This is what defines a scary company in my book, and one that bears close watching.
The Secret Dell at Lenovo
While touring the Lenovo design center, we found a Dell Precision workstation driving one of the critical pieces of equipment. While this clearly became the source of some embarrassment for the Lenovo folks, strangely enough, it also showcased what may be a strength. The Dell was undoubtedly integrated with the equipment connected to it, and the result was likely the best on the market. They could have used another solution that probably wasn?t as good to create the impression they were good at everything, but the result would have adversely impacted their own product quality. They chose to sacrifice the appearance in favor of increased product quality and competitiveness, and I think that that is the kind of decision we would like a company to make (rather than what I know generally occurs!)
In the end, I was very impressed with the Lenovo operation, and while I know putting these two units together won?t be a walk in the park, I?m satisfied that both bring solid assets to the table. The unique consumer products coming out of China will be enjoyed by many. And next to seeing the new incredible XBox, this is the best news I?ve heard all month.
The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.