Venezuela takes on global netbook brands in South America

The Caribbean nation of Venezuela often makes the headlines in reference to its outspoken and sometimes reviled president, but under the radar, Venezuela has Síragon, one of its tech firms aggressively entering new markets throughout South America.

Greg Palast once said: “There’s so much BS and baloney thrown around about Venezuela that I may be violating some rule of US journalism by providing some facts”. Well, in this humble article this scribbler will attempt to bring some facts about Síragon, one of Venezuela’s top tech brands.

Fifteen tears ago, engineer Passam Yusef was head of Primax Corporation, a firm which assembled PC clones from imported parts in the city of Valencia, Venezuela’s third-largest, and not to be confused with Spain’s third largest bearing the same name. Nowadays, Mr Yusef, who you can see pictured here, is at the helm of Greentech and its leading PC and electronics brand name Síragon.

Síragon operates a top-notch manufacturing plant in Venezuela – pictures here – which assembles desktop PCs, laptops, LCDs, and digital cameras. It includes surface-mount-technology (SMT) machines capable of assembling memory boards, PC cards, and even motherboards locally, which is precisely what the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez wants to do: encourage local manufacturing.

Of course, in his “21st century socialism” view, he wants the State to also become a player in the market. That’s the role of Venezuela’s public-private firm VIT – in partnership with China – that produces desktop computers, mostly for government use and public education, which are pre-loaded with Canaima, a Debian Linux derivative with a Venezuelan touch and tweaked for the needs of the public sector.

The company claims its facilities can pump out 75,000 laptops per month. And Venezuelan website Caracas Digital says the initial manufacturing facilities were built with Chinese help and required an investment of $12 million.

Síragon also says it took them 19 months of work to certify its manufacturing processes under ISO 9001-2000 standards, and that such certification was the first of its kind in Venezuela for an electronics manufacturer.


Overseas expansion

Síragon has offices in Valencia (Venezuela), Miami, and Buenos Aires (Argentina), but only began active sales and marketing of its computers in Argentina earlier this year. It started with a humble marketing attempt through Google Adwords and was later followed by a growing force of local distributors.

By the middle of the year, Síragon Netbooks were being sold on local auctions and electronic retail web sites by its authorised distributors, with very impressive prices – at least very low for what is the local market.

While a Samsung netbook with similar specs – a 160 GB hard drive and one GB of RAM – sold in July at £345 quid (€407, $555), Siragon’s ML-1030 10″ netbook sporting the same disk and RAM but with a newer Intel Atom N280 CPU, instead of Samsung’s N270, was being offered at the local equivalent of £223 quid (€262, $357), including 21 percent VAT and with financing in monthly instalments.

Low pricing for the bottom of the proverbial pyramid

 The pricing of the Siragon ML-1030 netbook was so attractive that even this scribbler snapped one up. It sports Windows XP SP3 pre-loaded, a decent 1.3-MP Web cam, built-in Bluetooth, and Ralink-based B/G Wi-Fi, plus an empty Mini-PCIe slot for a 3G (HSDPA) modem with internal antenna. Not bad for the original introductory price of under £223.

Even today, with the introductory pricing promotions and financing gone, Síragon is among the brands offering the best value for the money, for anyone looking for netbooks locally down under.

Passam Yusef said the firm aims to bring technology to the lower segments of the pyramid: “No other company has been dedicated to cater to the needs of the lower of the pyramid which is the common people, the working classes. At Síragon we bring technology to that market segment,” he says.

The company works with many Asian based firms as its suppliers, along with American ones.

While the company doesn’t give much details about which OEMs and reference designs it works with, users on CanTV forums have claimed that some early model system boards are identified by software tools as being from the Chinese firm “GreatWall.”


Criticism: Wintel love, and no Linux or SSDs

Of course, it’s never all roses: for instance the firm’s current product line-up in notebooks and netbooks is 100 percent “Wintel”, that is, Windows and Intel-based.

There is not a single AMD-powered Laptop on Siragon’s Venezuelan site, and that is too bad. Of course that means the firm doesn’t offer a single notebook or netbook pre-loaded with Linux. The ML-1030 for instance would pair nicely with Ubuntu Netbook Remix, or Fedora, or MeeGo. As far as Síragon goes, Linux users are on their own.

Two years ago, Síragon’s first Netbook the ML-1010 ran Linux, so that path of developments is a bit tragic. Second: we haven’t found any machines advertised with SSDs instead of hard drives.

Third complaint: its entire product line is not available outside Venezuela yet, only a select subset of models. And last: when I had to approach Síragon in Argentina for help, I was asked back on every e-mail exchange to provide the serial number of my machine before they could help me.

A warning. By the third week the serial number label had already begun to peel off. So, as a safety measure, protect the serial number and Windows stickers, which are prone to being erased by normal friction when you place the system on uneven surfaces.


In short

The firm is a newcomer outside its home country but with its aggressive pricing, specially on low-end netbooks, it has the chance to make some inroads throughout Latin America.

And it’s not the only one, as Southern Cone countries like Brazil and Argentina have been encouraging local manufacturing in the tech sector instead of importing finished goods.

That gave birth to plenty of local brands that assemble locally like Exo, plus increased commerce between neighbouring countries with trade bloc agreements like Mercosur. In its home Venezuelan market, the company already claims to hold the second to third place in sales, behind leaders Lenovo and HP.

Its CEO is buoyant. Passam Yussef says: “Tomorrow, we will manufacture mobile phones, and then, why not, a satellite.”

So there you have it, Venezuela exporting computers throughout South America. Will this last, or will this be a temporary fad, just like the locally-assembled 8-bit computers we enjoyed in the 1980s? Time will tell. But hey, who said the 21st century wouldn’t give us any surprises?