June 5, 2000 11:30 AM PDT

Gates goes to Taiwan amid gadget mayhem

TAIPEI, Taiwan--"Stuart Little" rules Taiwan.

The semi-animated movie about a mouse is one of the hottest items in Taipei, judging by activity in electronics stores. The mouse is prominently displayed, and actively bought, in nearly every store in town.

Shopping has long been a contact sport in Taipei--especially so when it comes to computers. This week, the city hosts the 20th annual Computex trade show, a four-day event that largely exists to celebrate computers and gadgetry. The heavy hitters, however, are on tap next week.

Taipei will also host the World Congress of Information Technology, a thinkfest that will feature Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers, Red Hat chairman Bob Young, Acer CEO Stan Shih and government officials from Singapore, Australia and France, among others.

The first event has often served to emphasize the country's importance in hardware; the second event, a first for Taiwan, will showcase its growing ambitions on the Internet.

Beyond being a manufacturing center, Taipei is also a shopper's dream. Storefronts run contiguously for miles.

While some establishments look like conventional stores, others are merely square footage in an alley surrounded by drywall. Many of these places don't even have signs. Instead, they have sheets of paper describing negotiable prices on Pentium III- or Athlon-based computers or printers.

It's 80 degrees outside, the pollution is near the danger limit, mopeds swarm the streets, and the People's Republic of China is making threatening military gestures. What better time to seek out a discount on "Lotus 123 for Dummies"?

Sidewalks are packed from early in the morning to around midnight, with people buying shoes, shirts, brown eggs cooked in broth, kittens, 19th-century ear wax scoops, kitchen utensils, house plants, domino sets, jewelry boxes and anything that accepts an electric current.

A trip to the massive electronics stalls off Civil Road can serve as a litmus test for what sells and what doesn't in the computer world. Our unscientific findings:

 Cell phones are huge and are being directed largely at children. Most of the custom covers on display feature cartoon figures. Winnie the Pooh seems to be the top favorite, followed by Japanese animated characters. Some stores sell phones with fake designer labels--the red Pierre Cardin phone, for instance, comes with a translucent blue antenna.

 Piracy is a sporadic problem. There's a company called Novia selling monitors in boxes decorated with the black-and-white blotches of a Holstein cow--very similar to Gateway's logo. I also doubt that the Audrey Hepburn Coffee Shop on Minchan Road got authorization from her estate. Toshibi, which makes electrical plugs, also could be skirting a line somewhere.

Still, the selection of DVD films seems to counter the notion that there are piracy labs running amok here. Once you get past "Stuart Little," the selection runs thin. Instead of Hollywood blockbusters, you get "Notting Hill," "Who Is Harry Crumb?," "Jerusalem: Within These Walls," and Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Red," "White" and "Blue" trilogy.

 Store owners also showed a marked disinterest in MP3 players. Only a few of the 50 or so I visited had them, and shopkeepers at the ones that did said they weren't that popular.

 The CD lives on. The popularity of DVDs pale in comparison to that of Video CDs, or VCDs, which capture the same movie on CD. There are five times as many movies in this format. Cost is part of the reason. "Robocop 6" goes for $450 NT ($15 U.S.) on DVD and $90 ($3) on VCD.

 Rambus doesn't quite rule. I went to six screwdriver shops--stores that specialize in build-your-own PCs. Four shopkeepers had never heard of the new high-speed memory, one said there was no such thing, and the last brought over a technical expert to explain that they had heard of it but didn't carry it. It was advertised nowhere.

 Colored computers have already had their day. Few stores market iMac knockoffs. Last year at this time, several companies advertised Day-Glo PC chassis. Beige is back, with a vengeance.

 Videotape is dead. A year ago, numerous stores still advertised videotapes. This year, I found one store that marketed a dusty collection of VCR head cleaners and another that was selling four different videotapes. The first three were "Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance," "Michael Flatley's Feet of Flames" and "Bee Gees: One Night Only."

The fourth was "Stuart Little."

 

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