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Coming in 2004

By Chris Keall

Monday 1st December 2003

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Tech is back
Yes, believe it smug naysayers. Some local stumbles (the collapse of The PC Company, layoffs at Jade, sweat at Carich's Computer Gym) have eclipsed a trend in the Western world during the last quarter: companies are buying tech again. Bellwethers like Intel, Texas Instruments and AMD experienced a solid surge in demand as chip sales surged 16% (the biggest jump in 13 years), Cisco smashed estimates with a 78% profit jump, and key software companies like Microsoft, Citrix and Symantec recorded huge gains. It looks like demand, pent-up from the year 2000 tech wreck, is finally starting to unfurl, and will really gain momentum during '04.

The PC is back.
But this time it's a notebook
Things are waking up in Godzone, too. Market researcher IDC New Zealand reports the PC market is perking up, though with a twist from the go-go nineties: people are paying less for their hardware. And while desktop computer sales are flat, notebooks are booming. IDC reckons laptops leapt to 25% of the PC market in '03, and will snaffle 33% next year. In the past decade most portables have been owned by road warriors. But these days, even a $2000-$2500 notebook is powerful enough to replace your desktop. And the wireless networking boom means 2004's laptop owner is more likely to be roaming her own home or office than marauding around an airport.

Er, dot-coms are back
During October I visited Clone, an Auckland-based web content management software company that's expanded from two to twelve people in the past year or so. They've nabbed major accounts in the process - such as a recent contract to redesign the ASB's site - and when I spoke to them were inches away from closing a big UK deal. There are increasing numbers of clones of, um, Clone out there. After three long years, dot.com is no longer a dirty word.

And while everybody in the US salivates over the prospect of a Google IPO, wouldn't it create a buzz if our own hottest dot.com, TradeMe, decided to list? Perhaps. This time last year, a TradeMe insider told me it was inevitable that über auction site eBay would hit NZ at some stage (it already has a portal for Kiwis) at which point it would either obliterate TradeMe, or buy it for a huge amount of money.

We're doing their jobs - here
US president George Bush is fretting about the export of white-collar jobs. But with companies like the California-based security giant Symantec choosing New Zealand as one of its software development centres (the company now has 40 engineers in Auckland working on its Ghost product), North America's loss is our gain.

During an Auckland visit in mid 2003, Symantec president and chief operating officer John Schwarz told me New Zealand is cheaper for the company's operations than Bangalore, a more famous destination for exported jobs. And apparently we're more "culturally aligned", too. US database giant Oracle says its North American corporate customers don't mind a Kiwi accent on its 24/7 help desk. So if Larry Ellison wants to go ahead and build that big R&D centre he was talking about here...

Spammers hit on all sides
"Microsoft drops bomb on email marketing," read the header on a red-alert email sent by Kiwi email marketing queen Debbie Mayo-Smith (of www.successis.co.nz). The "bomb" was Microsoft's new suite of business software, Office 2003, released in October. Specifically, its email module, Outlook 2003, which comes with a new security feature that strips graphics from HTML messages - reducing a pretty marketing newsletter (or any other email in web-style formatting) to a bunch of garbled text and X's.

All I can say is: get used to it, sister. Even before Office 2003, an increasing number of email programs and servers have been targetting HTML graphics, which most frequently occur in unsolicited messages - as well as employing keyword filters and other tricks to weed out junk mail.

But it's not just Uncle Bill who's picking on email marketers. October also saw Associate IT Minister David Cunliffe cross the Tasman, where he made encouraging noises about anti-spam legislation currently wending its way through Australia's parliament. The Aussie bill would make email marketing messages illegal unless the recipient has actively "opted in" (as, for example, you can opt in to this magazine's email newsletters by surfing to unlimited.net.nz and filling in an online form).

Cunliffe acknowledges spam is a global phenomenon. But with the US and EU working on similar legislation (the former on the back of its massively successful opt-out register targetting telephone marketers), life will just get tougher and tougher for pushers of cheap Viagra - with possibly some collateral damage to the Mayo-Smiths of this world, who are presumably less inclined to relocate to Romania.

Consoles grow wings
As predicted in the last instalment of this column, Microsoft has announced a pre-Christmas launch of its Xbox Live service, which lets owners of its game console play each other over the internet (for $213 a year). Microsoft is also finally releasing its Music Mixer in New Zealand, an Xbox add-on that turns the console into a Karaoke machine. Sony says it will hit back with its own online gaming service for PlayStation owners, though launch and pricing details weren't available as we went to press.

Worldwide, Sony is not sitting on its hands. In Tokyo for the giant Ceatec trade show during October, I saw a preview of the PSX, a souped-up version of the PlayStation2 that not only plays games but can record television to either a DVD-rewritable disc or its 250GB hard drive (the PS2 has no hard drive; Xbox packs a 40GB but can't capture TV). Although there are no plans for launch outside Japan at this stage, the PSX looks very much like a device that could be the hub of a digital home.

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