Before 2007, it’s probably fair to say not many consumers would have heard of Asus. While the company had been running a very profitable component business for years, it wasn’t until the advent of the EeePC – a launch the firm claims spurred the entire netbook movement – that the brand first came to the fore here in the UK.
Now the netbook is probably the most influential category in terms of defining the direction of the PC industry. Apart from being the fastest growing type of PC for the past couple of years, the increased emphasis on mobile connectivity that it spurred is now helping to shape new categories, such as the burgeoning tablet market.
BIRTH OF THE NETBOOK
According to marketing specialist John Swatton, even the architects of the earliest Asus EeePCs didn’t expect the type of device they were working on to become as pervasive as it has.
“Jonney Shih, our chairman, had a vision of providing a device. He recognised that technology was being used more and more by people on the go and he wanted simpler access to common applications such as email, browsing the internet and connecting to content wirelessly on a single server. And we looked to certain strengths and resources we had to make that happen, but we were lacking in one or two vital areas, and that’s where we worked closely with Intel.
“It turns out that when Jonney spoke to Intel it was also working on a low powered chip, but didn’t know how to package a machine around it. We worked out what it should be, as in should it have wi-fi, should it have a touchpad, a solid state drive, and what it shouldn’t have. I think it was a struggle in the early days because they weren’t quite sure… No one had tried to build that type of device. Within a couple of days brainstorming we came out with the first device. I don’t think anyone actually predicted it would be as successful as it was. I know in the early days a lot of people challenged the Asus approach, but we’ve proved a lot of people wrong.”
Now almost every PC vendor is manufacturing some kind of netbook, or at least a device with the same philosophy of high portability and low cost. Meanwhile, Asus is leveraging its strength in this area – as well as its sturdy component business, which remains one of its most lucrative ventures – to push further into new product segments. The Republic of Gamers division is the dedicated gaming section of the business, and it is utilising some very interesting proprietary and licensed technology to arm its new range of gaming devices.
“Republic of Gamers has helped us to innovate on the gaming aspect. Going forward that will continue, certainly on the notebook side,” continues Swatton. “The G51J 3D we’ve just launched is the world's first laptop to use Nvidia’s 3D Vision technology. And the G73, which is very reminiscent of a stealth fighter, is coming to market very soon. Again, that is built on the ‘Airo’ fold/unfold concept we unveiled at CES at the start of 2009. There’s also Nvidia’s Optimus technology, which will be shipping on the UL30 and UL50 and N61 notebooks. It’s like a hybrid engine. It’ll run on the onboard graphics, and as and when required it will automatically enable the dedicated graphics chip, if more graphics intensive applications are needed.”
While it’s a fair way off, Asus also caught the trade’s eye earlier this year with its Waveface designs – a series of concepts ranging from wearable watch-like PCs, to a device that recognised hand gestures in the air. Meanwhile, the firm is investing heavily in the e-reader market, which it sees as becoming a key sector this year.
“Our strategy is to develop products that are integrated as part of a digital lifestyle, and having a vision of how everything can work together,” adds Swatton. “Consumers are increasingly using technology to engage with their friends, family and colleagues on the go, but the portability of a device remains a key factor. This is why a number of devices have great functionality but not necessarily a large screen. E-readers, on the other hand, focus on delivering content easily to the consumer, without necessarily providing all the other functionality for creating content.”
If you listen to much of Asus’ messaging, there is a pervasive green theme that seems to go a stage beyond the general tipping of the corporate hat that most companies feel compelled to make towards environmental issues. Far from being an afterthought, the firm claims such thinking is fundamental to every aspect of its operations.
“We’ve had a green focus team since 2000,” notes Swatton. “It’s led by our chairman. The ethos behind that is to look into reducing the impact on our environment, so everything from R&D, sales, marketing, manufacturing, even packaging – right across the board. Certainly on products such as the EeeBox, which reduces power consumption by about 90 per cent when compared to a typical PC.
“We’re also launching the new Bamboo series in March – we spent 18 months refining the manufacturing process to reduce the cost of manufacturing it, so that the price will be more in line with typical notebooks. We don’t expect customers to pay as much of a premium – we’re trying to encourage people to choose a product that reduces the impact on the environment.”
This ethos appears to tie in with Jonney Shih’s link to Buddhism – and he is remarkably frank about how the religious practice plays a part in the direction of the firm. According to Shih: “In Buddhism you learn to accept everything, to let it flow through you. Then you can slow down and think clearly. Most people think Buddhism is passive or about escape. It’s not. It’s about confronting what’s in front of you with a clear and flexible mind. That might be a hot day or your competition, but you accept it and do everything to the best of your ability at that moment.”
In terms of the long term vision of Asus in the UK, with a host of products launches, regional office expansions and a concerted drive to boost awareness of its brand to consumers, the vendor has lofty goals.
“Our longer term objectives are to become top five and eventually top three. We were top three in EMEA for Q4 last year, and we’re number two in Germany, so there’s no reason why we can’t achieve similar success in the UK. We are currently expanding the UK office by a number of staff we’re also investing in our relationship with the distribution channel and retail partners. It’s all part of our commitment to the UK,” Swatton concludes.