Opinion - First person

Suzanne Venables-Wood, IET Manufacturing Panel and Kris Sangani, consumer electronics editor, offer their views on current issues.

If you ask me

Indian solution may be just a quick fix for UK

We all know the global economy is shifting. No longer are Western countries the only real players in the automotive game. Hot on the heels of the West is Tata Motors, part of the Tata Group based in India. If you don't know the brand name yet, you soon will - not only for the new products, but also because Tata Motors may just be the saviour of many UK-based jobs.

Tata Motors has launched the world's cheapest car, the Nano, on sale in India for about £1,300. The Nano is said to be environmentally acceptable and efficient, achieving 50 miles to the gallon, with diesel versions and two deluxe models on the horizon.

However, Tata Motors could also be a major player in underpinning the UK car industry. US company Ford announced in June 2007 that it intended to sell UK-based Jaguar and Land Rover as a bundle. This could potentially cause further depletion of the automotive industry and more job losses if the intended buyer decides to close the UK bases in favour of cheaper manufacturing.

Tata is seen as the front runner to buy the two British brands, and the group is reported to have pledged to keep Jaguar and Land Rover's sites open. This could be good news for both the UK and India. In terms of experience, Tata Motors is comparatively immature; in order to succeed in a truly global economy it needs to be seen as an established company that can play with the 'big boys'. Tata's branding is also not as strong globally as that of the automotive giants, so the deal would strategically boost its reputation.

The acquisition could also help to strengthen the future of both British brands and new vehicle developments such as the Nano and successive products. However, it also poses the questions: is relying on a lesser-known foreign conglomerate right for the UK automotive industry? Is this sort of partnership essential for survival in a global market? Will Tata Motors decide, in the long-term, to shift manufacturing outside of the UK where costs are fundamentally cheaper, thus passing on the cost savings to the customer?

For now, it would appear that a company born out of the independence from British rule is the saviour to our depleting and unstable automotive industry; but this may only be a short-term fix.

Suzanne Venables-Wood is a member of the IET Manufacturing Panel

The reinvention paradigm

This summer, you're likely to see one or two fashionistas surfing the Internet on their Air Macs in Starbucks, but Apple's latest super-thin laptop is unlikely to be popular with all believers in the Church of Steve Jobs. It is design for design's sake, and adds no real innovation.

The mobile phone industry, on the other hand, is a good example of how clever design can reinvent a device's original purpose.

In the 'brick age' of mobile phone technology, only one function was desired - making phone calls. When the Short Message System (SMS) was first introduced, most existing users dismissed the concept. But for most mobile phone users today, it would be hard to imagine life without this facility and for some users 'txting' is preferable to voice contact.

At the top end of the scale, as showcased at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, mobile phones include a powerful processor and storage that can handle a Web browser, download rates of up to 7.2Mb/s, music files, movies, email and office applications - a great example of device reinvention.

The iPod looks like it is undergoing a similar rejuvenation. Apple's flagship model, the iPod Touch, features the same multi-touch display technology that exists on the iPhone. This interface, with its 'pinch out', 'pinch in' and 'finger scrolling' gesture support, is preferable to using a little stick to drag a Web browser around a small screen.

With little fanfare, Apple doubled the memory capacity of the iPod Touch to 32Gb and added extra applications such as a note-taking tool and email.

Later this year, we are likely to see the first of many third party applications for the iPod Touch and iPhone operating system.

But even Apple can get it horribly wrong. Hands up those old enough to remember the Apple Newton. And more recently, Apple has struggled to differentiate the physical design of its laptops from rivals. After the launch of the original iMac, the designers attempted to give the Powerbook a similar style makeover resplendent with in-built carrying handle. It looked like a toy computer.

Despite its beauty, Apple's Air notebook has been widely criticised. It's pricey and technically compromised. If you want to use CDs, you have to buy an external drive. The battery is sealed in the unit, so replacing it involves returning it to Apple. There's no obvious way of plugging in an ethernet cable and the hard drive holds only 80Gb, and if you want the 64Gb diskless version the solid-state drive will set you back another £829.

Apple's error was to concentrate wholly on aesthetics with hardly any engineering innovation - unlike the iPod Touch.

In today's world, striking looks has to dovetail elegantly with function for the reinvention to occur.

Kris Sangani, consumer electronics editor

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