One of the biggest surprises at CES was MSI’s dual-screen Windows 7 tablet, a combination netbook/eReader device with two 10-inch touchscreens. To learn more about this breakthrough device and the company behind it we sat down for a candid discussion with the President of MSI, Joseph Hsu, and Andy Tung, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for MSI North America. I had a lot of questions about the prototype, including the benefit of having two screens and whether users are ready to type on a large touchsreen.
During our interview at CES, Mr. Hsu and Mr. Tung shared that MSI hopes to bring its head-turning tablet to market during the second half of the year and that it is targeting 4 to 5 hours of battery life. MSI also confirmed that it is considering Google’s Chrome OS for its dual-screen device, though this could be for a separate version. We also got the two executives’ thoughts on the continuing viability of netbooks (Hsu intimated Intel’s supposed restrictions on size could backfire), MSI getting into the smart phone business, and where MSI’s Nvidia Tegra-based tablet concept might fit in the market.
Your dual-screen tablet is generating a lot of buzz. Can you talk about the genesis of that product and what you’re trying to accomplish with it?
AT: The concept’s simple. Touch screen, e-reader, and normal netbook functions together. We believe that people don’t need one device that only has one function. So we want to have one thing that can do multiple functions. Most important here is those functions need to fit into your lifestyle. What do you want? So we delivered this concept product, a dual-screen notebook. It combines an eReader with a netbook. You can utilize the second screen as your keyboard. So you can do everything you would want to do on a netbook.
Even with haptic feedback, do you think people are ready to type on a larger 10-inch display?
JH: I believe at this time it’s a very needed technology. Sooner or later, I think the technology will be improving quite a lot. it’s important that you can use the other screen.
How else can those two screens work together?
AT: That part actually incorporates the OS. For example, during CES, the device we’re showing is running Windows 7 Premium. So basically, you can, as a second screen, extend it. You can have it separate, or combined together. So, that part is actually controlled by OS, but it doesn’t matter what the OS is. Today it can be Windows 7 Premium or tomorrow it can be another, different OS, as long as it’s good technology.
When does MSI plan to bring the dual-screen tablet to market, and what is your target price?
AT: The dual-screen will probably be launched around 2nd half. Although we haven’t finalized the price yet, we will definitely keep you posted.
I imagine having two 10-inch screens on a device could drain battery life quickly. What is your target battery life with this device and what processor might you choose?
AT: From our HQ’s internal testing, the dual-screen will have a battery life up to 4-5 hours.
Do you think you’ll bring the 7-inch dual-screen concept to market, and can you provide any details about pricing or availability?
AT: We are still evaluating the 7-inch plan and don’t have the exact launch timeframe now.
At CES you’ve also shown off a 10-inch Android tablet concept. What do you see as the unique benefits of Android and Windows?
JH: MSI wants to support many different operating systems. Applications are more important, so right now we have a netbook with Linux, but more people like Windows Starter because they like to be able to run more software. Sooner or later, Android will become more popular with the new software applications and we will implement it. It has great potential for the future market.
Will MSI support Chrome OS when it comes out?
JH: Oh yes. So like in the dual screen… Also, in other hardware. If it works well, we might also use it in the slate.
So your dual-screen tablet might come in a Chrome OS version?
JH: Yes, Yes.
Do you have any interest in making smartbooks or should we assume that your 10-inch Tegra tablet is your only ARM-based play for now?
JH: We’re gathering customer feedback but generally speaking I think this market is too early to say. From the technology side we have the capability but it depends on what the customer wants. Even the telecom providers are in a wait-and-see mode.
Is your Tegra tablet more than just a concept?
JH: We’ve shown it to our customers but the one thing that they want is low cost. You also need to have the right applications for different customer segments. For example, for the young kids, you need education programs. And then you need to have a telecom provider, so there is a lot of integration that needs to happen.
Taking a step back, MSI is often associated with netbooks and low-cost ultraportables. What do you think MSI stands for as a brand in 2010?
JH: In 2010, I believe there are some major developments and that MSI will be in the top ten companies worldwide. So, we consider ourseleves a leading technology provider. You’ll see some new concepts, but market share is very important. We’re focused on enhancing our product mix, including gaming and entertainment.
We noticed that you’re placing more emphasis on the look and feel of your notebooks with the new lineup, especially textured finishes. Are you focusing on design more this year?
JH: We hired a very famous and also very good and experienced designer so we can design our own IDs. So out of this time with the designer came the U160 and the X620. We just won a design award. I believe PCs are now commodities, so if you have good design, the user will like the user experience. The designs of are systems are very important.
I feel like the best notebook vendors in 2010 won’t just have great designs, but great software and new approaches to user interfaces. Do you feel like MSI has the software know-how to compete?
JH: MSI is not only a hardware provider. We also have our own in-house software team. We have one division for entertainment. With our slate we can provide the GPS and the entertainment, the audio, media, and also the PC functions. So this kind of operation uses our 3D interface. You need an interface like this, like that on iPhone
Are we going to see MSI’s own interfaces on upcoming devices?
JH: Yes. I believe it’s very important. That’s why I like new products like the dual-scree eReader, because their interface is more unique. So I believe it’s very key.
There are a lot of PC manufacturers that are sort jumping into the smart phone market, including Acer and Dell. Is that a space that MSI wants to play in?
JH: We had a smart phone almost three or four years ago. So we’ve always had this kind of technology. But in a smart phone we believe, like you said, applications and operating systems are more important than the hardware design. Right now we’re focusing on 3G, WiMax, and other communications features inside our notebooks or netbooks.
What initiatives is MSI undertaking to grow as a brand in the U.S.? Are you going after retailers more, like Best Buy, or the wireless carriers?
AT: Yes, actually. You just mentioned the retail business. We understand that retail is very important for the consumer market. So we are aggressively approaching all of the national and regional retailers. Not only that, but we’re also working with the carriers that are selling netbooks. We are ready with, I think, the number two or three nationally recognized provider.
On the low end you have ARM-based smartbooks and tablets entering the market. And on the somewhat higher end, you have ULV-based notebooks. Do you feel like netbooks are here to stay?
JH: A lot of it depends on Intel. I believe that Intel and AMD have a very good knowledge of the product. Intel won’t allow the netbook to get much bigger than the 10-inch form factor. So it’s frustrating. Still, I believe we are poised to lead this category. I saw 80 percent growth for this past year, and this year maybe 30 to 50 percent. But the regular laptops are still growing.
So what do you think is going to spur that growth of traditional laptops?
JH: Last year CULV generated a lot of interest but the performance was not so good. But Intel has improved the user experience, especially with video. In the last quarter we saw the volume grow 40 percent in this category. Now with MSI’s new X350 you’re getting nearly double the performance but still more than 8 hours of battery life. This is a very important second-generation product. You also see our new elegant design in this notebook and the X620, which is very thin but has a dual-core processor.
The X600 Pro is a bit of a departure for MSI. Does this mean you’re going to start courting business customers more?
AT: Yes, we’re going to be targeting business users. Business users want longer battery life and they like 3D graphics because it’s not just for gaming. For example, a lot of people like to encode video, and with a discrete GPU you can shorten the amount of time it takes. We also have 3D sensors that sense when the system is dropped and will park your hard disk so your data is protected.
What do you expect to be the biggest trends in notebooks for 2010?
JH: We’re excited about new technology coming from both Intel and AMD, as well as Nvidia. With Windows 7 you’re also going to see a lot of growth in touch, especially when it comes to entertainment and the education market. It’s a very powerful and useful technology.
What’s your goal for MSI has a company this year?
We want to grow faster than the industry average, so we want to double our growth. You’re going to see a lot more products form us targeting the mid to higher end. We are very confident.