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The Old OEM Economy Is Fading Fast

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It has always been tough to be an original equipment manufacturer, producing technology to showcase another company's software or basic design. Competition is fierce and margins thin.

But for a generation OEMs ruled computing. From Compaq to Dell, from Hewlett Packard (HPQ - Get Report) to a host of Asian companies, OEMs whose PCs ran Microsoft (MSFT - Get Report) Windows could out-produce Apple (AAPL - Get Report) by a mile, undercutting its prices to such an extent that businesses were willing to wait four years for a graphical user interface that worked, rather than paying up for the Macintosh.

Apple changed the game with the iPhone and the iPad. China made it happen. Parts suppliers and Chinese assembly plants, working directly under Apple's orders, could fill its sales channels no matter how they grew.

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At the same time cloud providers, starting with Google (GOOG - Get Report), Yahoo! (YHOO - Get Report) and Facebook (FB - Get Report), found they could build PCs from parts and create clouds for much less than it cost to buy servers from the OEMs.

None of this is news.

Compare the five-year performance of HP, the largest Windows OEM, Microsoft, which supplies its software, and Intel (INTC - Get Report), which supplies its hardware, against Apple.

HP is worth 9% less than it was then, after a ferocious reinvention of the company by CEO Meg Whitman. In mid-2012 it was down over 60% from the mid-2009 price. Microsoft has now joined in the general recovery and is up 74% over five years, Intel up 93%.

But Apple is up 370%. And its high price in 2009 made it a favorite stock to short.

Is there a chance this could change?

Google Android has the majority of the phone and tablet market. 

But profits at its largest OEM, Samsung, continue to soften. And Samsung isn't a typical OEM. Samsung makes its own chips. It even supplies Apple.

It's desperate to get out of the OEM business and out from under Google's shadow with its own phone operating system, called Tizen.

Amazon (AMZN - Get Report) also continues to grow with Android products, but its profitability isn't due to its ties with Google, but its own sales channels, which deliver goods and media as well as hardware.

Success in tech today, in other words, is based on either control of the supply chain or the sales channel. Traditional OEMs aren't making it.

Last month Intel President Renee James headlined the CompuTex show in Taiwan, where the remaining OEMs meet their market. She showed a new "reference design" that looked a lot like the Microsoft Surface, and the OEMs promised to deliver several versions of it this Christmas.

But even if the OEMs fill tens of millions of stockings this Christmas, and Diwali, and Singles Day, and every other Eid under the sun, they will do it on wafer-thin margins.

Consider how the biggest Taiwan OEMs have fared since I went to CompuTex in 2009.

MicroStar, which trades in Taiwan under the symbol 2357, has been on a tear this year, and is up 113% over five years, although it only hit break-even late in 2013. (This was written on an MSI PC.)

As to the others, AsusTek  2357 is up under 17% in five years. Acer 2353 is down 62% in that time, and at a valuation of $1.93 billion might be vulnerable to a takeover.

Even Hon Hai Precision 2317, known to Americans as Foxconn, which supplies Apple, is up only 3% over five years.

What about the future? The road to computing success now depends on brands completely owning their supply chains and sales channels, and computing doesn't look back. For OEMs to succeed again, computing must be redefined.

At the time of publication the author owned shares of GOOG, AAPL and AMZN.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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