Electronic Design

How Soon Can The New Decade Start?

Right now it is particularly difficult to see the future. It’s 2010 and everybody is ready for a fresh start. The entire year of 2009 seems to have been a waste. The global economy finally stalled out at its worst, and it’s not clear what will really pull industry back to robust activity. Right now, the best we can do is spend while the values for goods and services are better than what they will be in the coming years. That act of spending will really spur the economy back to life.

Over the last year, the financial markets became politicized and paralyzed. Close scrutiny makes what little money might be available extremely difficult to free up, even if borrowing rates are low. So for business to expand or invest in its future—be it capital expenditures, strategic investments, or research—it almost always has to do it out of its own pocket. This limitation will continue to slow overall growth. For the most part consumer, housing, and business sales have slowed across the board and have stayed lackluster even in the last quarter. Any real lightening in the economy is more a matter of “not getting any worse” rather than really getting better. 2010 is going to be better than 2009 mainly because things couldn’t get much worse.

The stock market may appear to be a second-order measure of the health of business, but it is heavily influenced by factors that disconnect it further from reality. Portfolio managers craft unnatural trades to make products look their best for closing out a quarter, or more importantly, closing out the year. So what will they do to end the decade? Therefore, watch for the head-fake from the stock market that can give false impressions that a recovery is well underway.

THE DOLDRUMS

Right now, it’s difficult to really identify any break-out electronics products. Oddly, there seems to be a lull across many markets. Incremental improvements seem to be the norm for new product releases. Revolutionary? Not so much.

There are no major product cycles about to turn over. There is no new generation of video games. The digital television transition passed its prime about a year ago (at least in the U.S.) so TV sales aren’t as exciting. The wrestling over television, network, telephone, and wireless access is in a familiar, set pattern. Digital TV added $10 to the monthly service, but that is now mostly over. 3G and early 4G wireless is edging into play, but no major overturn of consumer behaviors is expected. WiMax still has a lot to prove.

Alternative energy is a lively, altruistic topic, but traditional methods of electricity generation and gasoline-powered automobiles are still the overwhelming majority and “Smart Grid” is really just an idealistic buzzword. My wife isn’t going to do the laundry at 3a.m. because I tell her the electric rates are cheaper at that time any more than I’m going to drive to the office at 4a.m. just because the freeways are clear.

PCs are pedestrian and Windows 7 is well-characterized by the recent Macintosh advertisements. If Windows7 spurs significant PC sales, it is only because XP is now nearly ten years old and IT departments are being lead by the nose ring. netbooks and mobile internet devices (MIDs) have exciting potential, but the mighty Intel has to keep careful watch over its traditional market while playing down in the $200 product area. HP and Dell must step lightly too. Now that printers are all-in-ones, ink seems to be about the only thing moving in computer peripherals. Flat screen monitors are fairly standard and it’s hard to fill up the gigabyte hard drives you can buy for $100.

The automobile marches forward with new applications of embedded control, navigation systems, and more exotic entertainment. These improvements actually contribute substantially to the cost—and value—of the vehicle. Unfortunately, job insecurity has made far too many people realize that skipping the new car for a couple more years is a good savings on the second-largest consumer purchase item, even if they have to hold off on some of the fancy upgrades.

The industrial sector is stalled out along with manufacturing, although it does become more automated every year. The slow economy may have accelerated the move of manufacturing to “emerging countries,” raising demand there, but a good deal of industrial electronics will stay in the local economies as well. Electronics’ influence in the diverse medical world continues to blossom and tends to move steadily forward in spite of economic woes.

THE MOST PROMISING

There is no doubt that “green” technologies are at the top of the news, and that is good. Advanced electronics can contribute a lot to lowering power consumption. Make an electric motor that uses half the energy to start up and run, and it will make a real impact on electrical needs. Drop server and PC power consumption by a third and save even more in air conditioning costs. Working smart and reducing waste are key to these gains. Across the board, lower-power electronics is better and a natural progression of the industry. Even greater focus has been given to power conservation in the last couple of years and this will continue.

 

The Internet and networking are essential to the future. The Internet is taking down telephone wires, TV cable, post offices, printing presses, and much brick-and-mortar retail. FedEx should continue to do well. Applications that embrace the Internet and interconnectivity will flourish as will the infrastructure of networking.

As wireless networking standards establish themselves in very low-power embedded applications, a new level of connected products will create new markets and expand existing ones. This culmination of many advances in electronics integration is nearly upon us and should open applications from wireless sensor networks to truly connected homes.

The converged smart phone and everything similar to it will continue to be a hotbed of activity as the right combination of features, displays, input methods, size, and cost will coalesce into more narrowly-targeted products. Hardware and software integration, resource access and content, use models and business models, portability, and even style and industrial design will each play roles in success. Android, Google, and names from the East not previously associated with electronic products may take center stage with these.

Kindle is an interesting example. I panned e-books ten years ago as solving no real problem and not even lowering the cost of buying a book. While those criticisms remain, the intervening years have seen the nature and use of Amazon and the Internet evolve. Who has time to read books anyway? I can barely make it through email subject lines and 140 character tweets (twitter: TxTom).

SPEND, SPEND, SPEND

The best thing to get the economy going is for people to spend their money. Prices aren’t going to get any better. If you have a job and want a boat, a big-screen TV, upgraded multimedia service, or just a couple of new outfits, then to go out and buy them. It’ll be cheap. If you have the money and have been thinking of adding a media room to the house, the bids for the remodeling will be lower than in recent years and the equipment will be a bargain. Most importantly, those purchases play the market fairly. They mainly reward the products and services consumers value, and that encourages further development in the right areas. Government incentive programs twist the market, encouraging sales in unnatural markets, and only delay inevitable doom.

What should motivate people to buy is the realization that prices right now are being held unnaturally low by the sellers. Companies have spent the last year cutting costs to the bone and are willing to sell at the greatest discount in years just to keep revenue flowing. Inventories are low and middlemen have been trimmed. The end result of a lean food chain is value: a lot of product for just a little money. In another year when the economy has recovered, margins up and down the food chain will expand and prices will rise.

The economy is probably not getting any worse, but jobs are not improving either. The first quarter is likely to be bad following the normal year-end situation. It would be nice to have a couple of promising new electronic product categories, but they’re not obvious. By spring it should be easier to see just how strong the new decade will start, but it is most likely to be 2011 before everyone can forget the recession of 2009.

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