TechRadar caught up with Jerry Shen, Asus' new CEO recently - shortly after what was universally agreed to have been a pretty successful press conference for the Taiwanese computing company at CeBit 2009.
In an open and revealing chat, Shen told us more about his plans for future of the Eee PC and we find out a lot more about the new devices Asus was showing off in Hanover such as two intriguing new concept PCs, the Wii-like 'Eee Stick' and the AiGuru SV1 standalone Skype videophone.
Read on to find out all you need to know about voice-controlled Eee PCs, market-disrupting laptop designs and all the other exciting stuff in store from Asus later in 2009 and beyond.
TechRadar: Asus' successful sub-brand Eee PC seems to be expanding fairly rapidly. Was this always the plan with the Eee PC brand? It started out as a low-cost netbook, but now there is an entire range of different devices.
Jerry Shen: Actually when we developed the original Eee PC the major focus was on the triple E, or what we refer to as 'easy, excellent and exciting' – and the hidden 'e' factor is also 'economical'.
But the major three are easy to learn, work and play; excellent mobile internet experience and also exciting – which means that we always try to do something beyond the user's expectations. We try to implement these in all Eee PC products, so for example, if you look at the latest Eee PC 'Seashell' - the Eee PC 1008 – low cost is the result, but our major focus is on these three Es. Easy, excellent and exciting.
TR: And now you are releasing new products under this brand such as the Eee Keyboard and the Eee Stick – which we have just tried out and it is basically like a much more responsive version of the Nintendo Wii. But is there perhaps a problem here, in that most people don't currently have PCs in their living room?
JS: Well, what we found in our planning, is that we have two devices, the Eee Box and the Eee Keyboard, that are very possible to put in the living room. The Eee Box can be placed near to the TV and it can be connected via HDMI and it becomes what we call 'Eee TV', with which you can then use the Eee Sticks to play.
One of the final production versions of the Eee Keyboard will be wireless (using an ultra wide band receiver), so you can plug a dongle into the HDMI on the TV and then you can use the keyboard wirelessly to play movies, access the internet and to make use of the big display on your TV.
The wired version uses a standard HDMI cable, so will be full high definition. And in the future the wireless Eee Keyboard will make use of new 30GHz Miniwave technology that will also be able to offer full HD output wirelessly, similar to the wired version.
TR: In effect, you are asking consumers to change the whole idea of how they use PCs, particularly in relation to the idea of sitting on the sofa in the living room while using your TV as you would use your PC monitor. Could you tell us a little more about the new concept PCs Asus had on show at CeBit this year – the Fold/Unfold laptop and the dual touchscreen eBook laptop concept, for example.
JS: The dual touchscreen PC is still at concept stage, but for the Fold/Unfold laptop concept, we plan to try to implement that in the second half of 2009, so we will see mass production of that later this year. We were thinking of the category of the MacBook Air and we think that the Asus Fold/Unfold can create another category. Image-wise and everything, it is a PC in many ways like the MacBook Air – we seek to have a similar impact on the market.
In 2007 when Apple launched the MacBook Air, it created a lot of media attention. So this year Asus plans to launch the Fold/Unfold, not following with tradition, to create a similar momentum.
TR: So it is like a more affordable and economical PC version of the MacBook Air?
JS: Yes. Have you seen the pre-production prototype of the Fold/Unfold? [Assistant fetches in the mock-up prototype]. As you see it is pretty… different!
TR: It is certainly different. It's a real departure, design wise. So this is definitely going to be available to consumers in time for Christmas 2009?
JS: It will be available around September or October time later this year.
TR: What about the selling price?
JS: The end-user price will be somewhere between $1000 and $1500.
TR: So you think this will have a similar impact on the market to that of the original Eee PC back in 2007?
JS: Yes, because it is something different, exciting and original. Just as with the 'Seashell' Eee PC 1008 also, we are offering a new polymer battery offering up to five hours battery life.
TR: Will Asus' netbooks ship with Windows 7 later this year, as soon as Microsoft's new OS is finally released?
JS: That's dependent on Microsoft's schedule. But for sure, with the touch product – the Eee T91 – and for the other new Eee PC products, we are already testing with Windows 7.
TR: Netbooks are getting much better graphics capabilities – do you think we will soon be able to play proper 3D videogames on netbooks?
JS: The Eee PC graphics chips are from AMD or Nvidia – so we do not really experiment with those - but we will work with Intel to see how we can advance those technologies.
TR: What about that dual screen concept PC that you have been showing at CeBit?
JS: For the dual screen concept there are two parts – it can work as a dual-screen monitor or it can work with one screen acting as a [touchscreen] keyboard. The trigger idea was that there are often times when you need a bigger screen or more screens. Like in an investment bank, for example, they have so many screens!
This concept is still in development. We are still trying to see if we can make people understand this concept easily. So right now it is my priority to keep working on this concept. OLED is still very expensive. And when you touch a normal keyboard, you feel it. But if we use a touchscreen keyboard, there is no response. You can maybe use the voice for input, but this is still something we need to work on before it is commercialised. So this will not launch this year. This one [indicates Fold/Unfold prototype] will launch this year.
TR: That takes me onto one interesting point your Chairman made in his CeBit 2009 presentation – he mentioned that Asus wants to see 'the end of the keyboard' and that you want to implement speech recognition.
JS: Oh for sure. Actually, internally we have one team dedicated to studying voice recognition. Touch and gesture input is universal, whereas language is not universal. The first Eee PC or Eee Top products implementing voice-recognition and features will be ready by Q3/Q4 2009 – with our dedicated development team working with third parties in both Japan and the US and reporting directly to me. So this is something we will see very soon, later this year.
TR: Asus' new Skype videophone device is a bit of a departure for you. Tell us more about that.
JS: With this machine, Skype asked us to really focus heavily on the voice quality – from the speakers on the device – which we have tuned to offer great quality. I installed one in my house and another one in the US, so I use the machine to have video conferences.
TR: So how will this be marketed? Who do you think will buy this?
JS: I will buy one for my mother in the south of Taiwan and one for my house so I can have videochats with her easily. So we plan to sell them in pairs. It is very easy to use, even for a non-PC user. For this first generation one, we have just used traditional buttons. For the second generation Skypephone we plan to implement a touchscreen, which we should bring out later this year.
TR: So with these types of developments in VoIP technologies [for casual and non-PC users] do you think we might we see the end of the traditional cellphone in, say, three to five years down the line?
JS: Traditional phone companies are threatened because Skype threatens their profits. As for our plans, we want to develop these products in such a way to keep the costs down and make them even more affordable in the future.