Acer is in trouble, but that's not Jason Chen's fault. The CEO, who's only been on the job five months, inherited an organization besieged by a shrinking PC market and record losses. So how is he doing? Too soon to say, really, but there are signs Acer might be turning over a new leaf: The company this week unveiled a tablet, a bunch of smartphones and its first smartwatch, the Liquid Leap. No PCs, though. If nothing else, it's clear the firm is eager to branch out beyond cheap laptops.
Here at Computex (ostensibly a computer show), we asked Chen what he thinks consumers want in a smartwatch, and how the Leap will stand apart from other wearables entering the market. Chen's surprising answer: He doesn't know yet. "We believe over time the market will prove itself," he said in an interview. "What we have to do is get the product [out] and see how it goes." In the meantime, Acer's strategy is to hedge its bets. The Leap attempts to be both a smartwatch and a fitness device, with features that include SMS/call notifications, step counting and sleep tracking. At launch, it will only work on Android (just an Acer phone to start), but an accompanying iOS app is already in the works. Whatever it is that people want to do with a smartwatch, Acer is trying to cover its bases.
Reading in between the lines, though, it seems Chen is aware the Leap is probably imperfect. "This is the first product we've introduced in the wearable market, and it won't be the last," he said. "We understand the market is going up, and we have to make sure we don't miss it. What we are learning, the industry is also learning." In other words, better to enter the market as soon as possible, and get your mistakes over with early.
Just ask Samsung. Or Sony, for that matter. Both companies are on their second generation of smartwatches, and both have yet to master things like user experience and app selection. It's not surprising, then, that Chen doesn't seem to know what consumers want in a smartwatch; companies that have been at it for years still don't have the answer. That doesn't bode well for Acer, which perhaps isn't as early to the market as Chen would have you believe -- and which faces competition from other newcomers such as Motorola, LG and Razer. Then again, plenty of other companies (Apple, Dell, HP, ASUS, Toshiba) have yet to announce anything at all.
Acer certainly faces serious challenges trying to figure out the wearable equation, but Chen insists his company has a leg up. His own experience in semiconductors -- he comes from TSMC -- helps, he says. "How long can you expect to recharge your device?" he asked, referring to some of the unsolved challenges of building a smartwatch. "Those power-consumption questions need to be fixed." More importantly, Chen says, Acer is a big brand that people trust. And even if they don't, the company can still reach a large population of people, all while keeping the price down. "We have established a foothold in the industry so when the market starts to ramp up, we participate," he added. "Rather than being too late, at the tail of the market."