Ten years ago, Akihabara was the place to be for the latest electronics and knick knacks and components. I’m convinced the new place to be is the SEG Electronics Market in Shenzhen (although to be fair I heard there is a competing market in Korea that’s supposedly even better–the Japanese test-market their stuff there even before they try it in Akihabara!).
As I first step foot into the building, I am assaulted by a whirlwind of electronic components. Tapes and reels of resistors and capacitors, ICs of every type, inductors, relays, pogo pin test points, voltmeters, trays of memories, all crammed into tiny six-by-three foot booths with a storekeeper poking away at a laptop, sometimes playing Go, sometimes counting parts. Some booths are true mom-and-pop shops, with mothers tending to babies and kids playing in the aisles.
Other booths are professional setups with uniformed staff and work like a bar for electronic components, complete with bar stools.
And it’s not like, oh, you can get ten of these LEDs or a couple of these relays like you do in Akihabara. No, no. These booths specialize and if you see something you like, you can usually buy several tubes, trays or reels of it–you can go into production the next day. Over there, a woman sorting stacks of 1GB mini-SD cards like poker chips; here, a man putting sticks of 1 GB Kingston memory into retail packages, next to him, a girl counting resistors.
Stacks of power supplies, varistors, batteries; ROM programmers. Atmel, Intel, Broadcom, Samsung, Yamaha, Sony, AMD, Fujitsu, every variety of chip. Some of them clearly ripped out of used equipment and remarked, some of them in brand new laser-marked OEM packaging.
Chips that I couldn’t dream of buying in the US, reels of rare ceramic capacitors that I only dream about at night. My senses tingle, my head spins. I can’t supress a smirk of anticipation as I walk around the next corner, to see shops stacked floor to ceiling with probably a hundred million resistors and capacitors.
Oh my god! Sony CCD and CMOS camera elements, I couldn’t buy those in the US if I pulled teeth out of the sales reps–and behind the counter, the guy sometimes has a datasheet–ask for it. A stack of Micrel regulator chips–over there, a Blackfin DSP chip for sale. The smell, the bustle, the hustle. It’s the ultimate electronic component flea market. Over here, a lady counting 256 Mbit DRAM chips…trays of 108 components, stacked twenty high, a row of perhaps 10 of them–she has the equivalent of Digikey’s entire stock of DRAM chips sitting right in front of me.
And across from her is a half dozen more little shops packed with chips just like hers. A man standing proudly over a tray of 4 Gbit NAND FLASH. All of this available for a little haggling, a bit of cash, and a hasty goodbye. This is Digikey gone mad. It’s as if they let the monkeys into the warehouse at Thief River Falls, Minnesota and spilled it into a flea market in China, and then some.
And that’s just the first two floors. Six more floors of computer components, systems, laptops, motherboards, digital cameras, security cameras, thumb drives, mice, video cameras, high end graphics cards, flat panel displays, shredders, lamps, projectors, you name it. On weekends, “booth babes” dressed in outrageous Acer-branded glittery body suits are loitering around trying to pull you in to buy their wares. It’s got all the energy of a year-round CES meets Computex, except the point here is not to show off the latest technology–it’s to get you in to these booths to buy it. Trade shows always feel like a bit of a strip tease, with your breath making ghostly rings on the glass as you hover close over the unobtainable wares underneath. This is no strip tease. This is the orgy of consumer and industrial electronic purchasing, you can get your grubby paws on every piece of equipment for enough quai out of your wallet.
A brisk walk down the street 3 blocks lies the Shenzhen bookstore. The first and most visible rack of books is a foreign book section, packed with classic books like Thomas Lee’s RF design book and several Razavi titles. I pick up Lee’s book…68 quai, or $8.50. Holy cow! Jin Au Kong’s book on Maxwell’s Equations…$5. Jin Au Kong taught me Maxwell’s Equations at MIT. I go on a spree…I pack my bag with six or seven titles, probably around $700 worth of books, and I go to the checkout counter and buy them for less than $35–complete with the supplemental CDs.That’s like an economy class ticket to Hong Kong right there!
Knowledge is cheap. Components are cheap. The knowledege in those books are the Real Deal, and the parts down the street are all there. And within an hours drive north is probably 200 factories that can take any electronics idea and pump them out by the literal boatload…and these are no backward factories. I saw with my own eyes name-brand 1550nm single-mode long-haul fiberoptic transcievers being built and tested out there. Shenzhen is fertile ground. You need to come here to see it to understand it. As a technologist from the US, I tremble in my boots, with terror and excitement–I get to be a part of this! This place has the pregnant feel of the swapfests in Silicon Valley back in the 80′s, when all the big companies were just being founded and starting up…except magnified by 25 years of progress in Moore’s Law and the speed of information flow via the Internet. In this city of 12 million people, most involved in tech or manufacturing, plenty of foreign influence, many learning English, all of them willing to work hard, there has to be a Jobs and Wozniak somewhere, quietly building the next revolution.
Okay, so this wasn’t a name that ware…it’s lame, but my dog ate my homework. I lost my digital camera on the way to Shenzhen in the plane somewhere, so now someone has a camera full of pictures from Christmas, factories, bachelor parties, and idiosyncratic amounts of close-up shots of electronics. The guy who found it has to think I’m a weirdo (I guess I can’t deny that!). I’ll find another ware and put it up soon–give me a couple of days!