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If an up-and-coming Chinese company has its way, you might soon buy your computer and your car from the same manufacturer.
The last name you'd expect
Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal described how Microsoft, Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) , Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , and Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) are responding to Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) opening salvo in the iPad wars. While listing the hordes threatening to tread on Apple's turf, the Journal calmly reported that over in China, a little company named BYD is gearing up to offer its own version of the tablet PC. The PC in question, says BYD, would retail for under $300, be powered by an Intel chip, and hit the market early next year.
The first time most of us heard of this tiny, future Chinese automotive superpower, I suspect, was when Warren Buffett -- at Charlie Munger's urging -- famously deployed Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-B ) cash hoard to purchase 10% of BYD back in 2008. Initially an established maker of cell phone batteries, BYD had begun to leverage its strength there to build an electric car that could challenge the entire auto industry. The move marked BYD founder Wang Chuan-Fu as a visionary in Munger's opinion, and a man who merited Berkshire's multimillion-dollar bet.
Is Wang truly a genius? A visionary? Or just clinically insane? I mean, established computer makers like Dell and Hewlett-Packard will already have their hands full trying to catch up with Apple's iPad momentum in the tablet arena. What hope does a battery maker, or even an upstart automotive magnate, have?
A brave new world
Quite a lot, I suspect. As technology accelerates, cars -- which began as complex, specialized machines, powered by controlled explosions of petroleum products and maneuvered by a system of interlocking parts -- are evolving more into appliances powered by electricity, and maneuvered according to the instructions of their on-board computers. (This isn't necessarily always a good thing. For example, Toyota is discovering that its "sudden acceleration" problem would be a lot simpler to fix if it stemmed from a simple mechanical defect, rather than the software glitch that seems to be the culprit.)
As companies like BYD, Ford (NYSE: F ) , GM, and Nissan develop functional, highway-rated electric cars, we'll probably see a lot more convergence across multiple industries that once seemed wildly separated. Google's pursuing its own tablet, investing in windfarms, and considering becoming a telecom. Apple wants to improve your television experience. Cisco aims to sell you a stereo system.
In that light, why wouldn't BYD manufacture any appliance with good growth potential -- whether it's a computer or a car? Given BYD's basis in batteries, a tablet PC actually makes a lot of sense, provided the company can make breakthroughs that increase mobile computers' battery life.
Everything's converging, and everything's changing. Investing in this new landscape will be one heck of a fun ride.