At its Wednesday hardware launch event, Google gave Asus Chairman Jonney Shih just a quick, 15-second shout-out. "We worked very closely with Jonney and his team to deliver the first Nexus 7," said Sundar Pichai, the senior vice president who oversees Android, Chrome and Google apps.
And that was all she wrote. Asus wasn't mentioned again. Pichai's words were fleeting, but don't underestimate Asus's role in the creation of the second coming of Nexus 7. The new tablet required intense coordination between Google and the Taiwanese manufacturer, all in the service of nailing lofty specs at the consumer-friendly price of $229.
"It almost broke us," Shih told me. And he wasn't talking about financials. Development of the latest Nexus 7 pushed Asus to the brink as it obliged Google's goals to create a tablet that was thinner, faster, longer-lasting and more feature-packed than its predaccesor.
Read on as Shih, chairman of one of the world's most successful PC, tablet and component manufacturers, riffs on the whole excrutiating process. He also hares some painfully honest words about Windows 8, and discusses the possibility of an Asus smartphone for US customers. (Interview edited for length and clarity.)
Describe the relationship between Asus and Google for the development of Nexus 7. What did Asus contribute to the project?
I think it's been a wonderful relationship since the first-generation Nexus 7. At that time, there was already a lot of challenge. This time, I think it's even harder. This year, the components price trend is up, and also the schedule [was accelerated]. It's been a far more difficult challenge compared with the first generation. Our software engineers have to fly back and forth. One of the engineers actually had to delay his marriage.
Now, the Asus brand spirit is called "in search of incredible." Both parties tried very hard to make this "search for incredible" really come true. At Taipei 101, we almost can't proceed, because it was so difficult. But both parties tried very hard, and still made it possible.
Does Google define the specs you want to achieve, and then you have to figure out how to build it?
The spec actually is from both parties. This time, we have to make sure [the display is] full HD, and we want to make it a narrow frame. The processor, compared with the first generation, you can also see a big difference. This time, we also have the stereo audio, and also the front and rear camera. So you have to add a lot of vents. And you want to make it very narrow--a real difficult challenge to the engineers.
The relationship has been really wonderful... Both parties know that if you compromise, then it won't be that good. It's very difficult, to the point that both parties almost give up, and then try very hard and then overcome the problems. So it has been a very, you know, "in search of incredible" experience.
What's the big difference between the Nexus 7 and the new Memo Pad HD 7, which goes on sale in the U.S. next week?
The Memo Pad HD 7 is more like the original Nexus 7. It still has only an HD [720p] display, but the new Nexus actually is the full HD [1080p] display, so it's a big difference. From Asus' point of view, we have to ensure that the Nexus 7 is the top-segment product, almost no compromise. For the Memo Pad HD 7, frankly speaking, we try to address an even lower segment, like up to $149. But even for this kind of price, we still try to make sure it has the best value.
What do you think of Windows 8 tablets and the Windows 8 launch in general?
I think we have to agree that it's not as promising as when we first tried to launch the Windows 8 products. One of the challenges is how to drive the prices down. Another is Windows 8 apps. Android is already around 700,000 apps, and Windows is still trying very hard to increase its apps. So that's two major challenges for Windows. But I think Microsoft fully understands this, and has been trying very hard for the second half.
They try to put in more investment and incentive, including the pricing, [but] I think also, in general for the total Windows 8, I think it's not that promising. One of the reason is, maybe, it's still not that easy for people to switch to the new experience. For example, for Windows 8, the hottest app, sarcastically, is the one that puts the Start [button] back.
Do you think Windows 8.1 is enough of a reset to supercharge the Windows platform?
I think it's a very important revision, including what we mentioned about the Start [button] and also a lot of improvement in how to make it a more seamless kind of transition, and also including Outlook [in Windows RT 8.1]. Those kind of things. So I think they tried to improve quite a bit.
Do you think Windows RT has a future?
I think Microsoft may still try very hard to do that. Our direction is more toward x86 plus the 8.1 approach.
You have such a strong relationship with Google, how come you haven't released a Chromebook yet?
In the past two or three years, we have been focused on this kind of transforming concept. The goal is to provide the most seamless kind of experience between work and play, and also across platforms like Windows and Android. But mostly it's still based on the current existing platforms, because Windows is still the best for productivity, and Android is best for entertainment.
But it doesn't mean we don't think about Chrome. I think Chrome is actually more advanced thinking--one step further, everything [in the] cloud. You can discard this machine, and then immediately take another machine, because all the state is in the cloud. And then you can start your Chrome machine immediately.
You've talked about transformation, and the Fonepad and PadFone exemplify that, but they're not in the U.S. yet. Do you think the U.S. audience is ready for that level of transformation? It's almost experimental, daring design.
I think this kind of transformation concept actually got a very positive response from all over the world. But as you mention for the U.S., we are still the late-comer in terms of the phone business. In the U.S., we are also exploring the carrier, so we are making progress. So I think it just, you know, takes time.
So it sounds like a carrier battle, not so much a U.S. philosophy about...?
Actually, a lot of the U.S., including the enthusiast, they love the PadFone concept.
Industry-wide, what do you think the biggest new features in mobile will be for next year?
That's very good question, but you know, a little bit confidential. I think definitely you can count on Asus innovation. I think very soon, we will have some surprise for you. I think in this [mobile] category, we believe.
Can you give me a hint?
We already talked about transformation, and how to address this between the phone and the tablet and the PC, how to make it even more seamless. And the original phone, frankly speaking, is designed more for voice. But today, you already use it more as a handheld computer. So that's why we have the Fonepad concept, and also the PadFone concept.
So you can consider that.
So you think you'll have a U.S. carrier relationship in 2014?
You will see the progress.