Shining a Light

With all the talk about counterfeits — most of which takes the manner of the over-the-backyard-fence gossip — I was glad to see this announcement today.

A company that makes bearings announced the confiscation of over 30 tons of counterfeits at a non-authorized dealer in northeast Czech Republic. (The raid also uncovered faked products from other bearing manufacturers.)

It’s not so much that the rats were caught. It’s that SKF, the bearing maker, went public with the news.

Typically, companies prefer to keep such news hush-hush, probably so as not to unnerve potential customers. Shining the light is better, however. It makes clear the scope of the problem, the steps being taken to counter it, and most important, it reminds customers to buy only from authorized sources.

There aren’t a whole lot of measures we can take to protect ourselves from counterfeits. But the measures we can take are highly effective — provided we follow them, and all the time.

The Price of ‘Faking It’

Counterfeit electronics components supposedly are destroying the integrity of our hardware.

One estimate holds that “five to 20% of electronic components in distributors’ chains are probably counterfeit” at a cost to industry of some $100 billion a year.

In response, several organizations (not to mention a cottage industry of consultants) have jumped on the bandwagon, launching programs to warn of the hazards (death! destruction! locusts!).

Let’s put aside, for the moment, the obviously inflated numbers ($100 billion, after all, is more than the sum of all the semiconductor revenues of Intel, Samsung, Toshiba, TI, STMicroelectronics, Infineon and Renesas — in other words, the world’s top 7 semiconductor OEMs — in 2007.

The SIA, for example, now has an anti-counterfeiting task force, and is working in concert with SEMI to combat the problem. “Counterfeiting is a serious and growing problem in the worldwide electronics industry,” says SIA president George Scalise. “Counterfeit products pose a significant risk to consumers as well as to the manufacturers of semiconductors and electronic products.

In the UK, something called the Component Obsolescence Group published a list of best practices said to help minimize the risks associated with the growing supply of faked parts.

And of course, makers of traceability software, XRF and other gear have ramped up marketing efforts to pitch their solutions.

But…in all the hue and cry, one thing is missing: The guilty users. Over the past few companies, I’ve asked at least two dozen EMS companies if they’ve seen any counterfeit components. None would admit to it.

Now, we estimate that there are at least 1300 EMS sites in the US, so my sample is hardly representative. Still, is the problem overblown? Or are my contacts – gasp! – lying?

And if they are fibbing, in the end, who gets hurt? (Answer: The customer.) Is it worth it?

Netbooks: Unhappy Returns?

As anyone who peruses computer stores knows, netbooks are proliferating at unprecedented rates. Consumers are taken the portability of the half-pint PCs (the typical reaction is “they’re so cute,” one salesman derisively shared with me), not to mention the price tags – often under $300. In my own completely unscientific survey, 30% or more of the PCs on display in traditional PC retail outlets are now flavors of netbooks.

The data support the anecdotal evidence. Worldwide netbooks shipments are expected snare a 17.2% share of the overall notebook PC market in 2009, according to a new research report.

But not so fast. The salespersons I spoke with noted lots of problems with notebooks. The return rates run as high as 40%, one said, citing consumer complaints about the lack of functionality. Computer Weekly editors recently took on the negative side to the phenomenon as well.

Netbooks serve a function – namely surfing and simple word processing. But they are not computers in the full-fledged sense. The idea, as noted by Computer Weekly, that business are starting to implement netbooks is a scary proposition for those who value quality and performance over price.