The Distro Interview: MSI Senior Vice President and co-founder, Jeans Huang

The MSI brand should be no stranger to connoisseurs of desktop motherboards, graphics cards and gaming laptops, but did you know that this Taiwanese company started off as a computer terminal maker 26 years ago? To find out more, we sat down with the very likable Senior Vice President (R&D Division) Jeans Huang. Read on to hear the co-founder's interesting story on how MSI was formed by five ex-Sony engineers, his frank reason behind MSI's reluctance to enter the smartphone market, and his thoughts on 3D display on the PC.

Let's talk a bit about the history of your company first. Our readers probably want to know what it takes to start a big company like MSI, starting from zero all the way to where you are now. Can you talk about how it happened and where you found your friends?

Actually, MSI founded in 1986, about 26 years ago. Originally we had a total of five founders. Before we found this company, we were trained at the same company in Taiwan: Sony. We've been working together for a long time so we were very good friends. And 26 years ago, the PC industry was just in the early stage but we had very good technical experience at Sony, because at the time we were designing terminals.

Actually, terminal technology was more sophisticated than PC because the system was completely designed by ourselves. The PC's original design is by IBM, whereas the terminal was completely new -- from the spec to implementing the schematics, so many things had to be provided by ourselves. Many computers come from IBM mainframe, Wang, NCR and so on. Those were very big computers, but at the time we thought this kind of [PC] concept should be possible, instead of the mainframe in the vision; and today, it had already happened.

Mr. Hsu, who is our chairman, thought this was a very good opportunity, so he invited some good friends (me, Frank Lin, Henry Lu and Kenny Yu). It was possible to found this company because at the time we were just single. [Chuckles]


How old were you by the way, if you don't mind me asking?

Ah it's OK. I was born in 1958, so now I'm 50-something; but 25 years ago we were so young. Because we were not yet married, that meant we could work very hard and not care about any financial issue. Even with a very small income, we could very easily get by with it.

So just five people to begin with?

In that time just five people. We founded in August 6th or 16th, but in October... in that stage, Taiwan had a very famous electronics show in October, so we must prepare our host product to show there within just two months. That included the schematic design, layout, and implementing the components, and in that time, all the components were using TTL (transistor–transistor logic), very small components. Now all the components are integrated into the IC; but at that time, no, so we must install those components by hand by ourselves. So every day we worked very very hard, but we enjoyed it a lot. And we were very happy because we were very good friends at the time.

In that time, all the components were using transistor–transistor logic, very small... we must install them by hand by ourselves.

And why join the show? Because we could collect the most customers at the show. This was a new business, so most of the customers there were trying this market. We bet on this space during its slow growth. Originally we just worked on the motherboard. Even currently notebooks also have a motherboard inside, so the motherboard actually is very important in this industry. You should find that our current products like the motherboard, VGA, desktop, AIO, notebook, server; all product lines are based on this technology.


MSI now has an Android tablet and two Windows 7 tablets. Do you see that tablet computing is the future?

Actually, MSI made its first tablet nine years ago. As I remember, the model number was MS-2832 (aka PenNote 3200). It was based on the x86 Windows-based architecture. In that time, the weight was maybe around 1.2 to 1.3kg, the battery life was maybe 1.5 hours only and with very poor performance. Our new one (WindPad 110w), we can make the weight to be under 0.85kg with good performance, and the battery life is at least five to six hours.

On Windows?

On Windows. Of course, we can make it much longer, but the weight... we'd have to put a very big battery to support it. So how to make the balance? For a tablet the weight is the most important, and battery life also is very important. Then there's performance. For graphics, it can support DirectX 11. It belongs to the very good, high-end graphics category. And CPU also: it is dual core, not single core. So actually, for most people it is already sufficient, so I believe the time is coming, especially the pricing. As I remember, our first product, the 2832, was sold for more than $1,000. Now, this product maybe less than $600. So the performance is much better, but the cost is much lower.

Personally, I try to use the tablet at home. After I use the tablet frequently, I don't carry my notebook back home. Actually, most of the things like reading the mail, browsing the web, playing a little game...

Angry Birds!

Yeah, Angry Birds. It's already good enough.

Obviously, MSI hasn't entered the mobile phone market yet. Is this something you're considering? Do you see much potential there?

We have actually surveyed this market around seven years ago, but finally, we gave up this market because there are so many bigger, stronger competitors like Nokia, Motorola and Samsung. In this business, frankly speaking, the technology is quite different to our core completeness, so that's why in that time we gave this one up. And even now, we still don't think this one is for our near future.

I believe the PC industry should be more aggressive than smartphone companies.

Frankly speaking, in Taiwan HTC is one of our most successful companies. How can we join this market? [It took HTC] Maybe just two to three years only. So I don't believe who can win this market -- it's all decided by who can make more innovation, can provide a good product, good production completeness and service, and marketing. Marketing, everybody can do it. For telco companies, they have more advanced competition. Good relationship with telco operators [is important]. But [the task of] tackling the market, I don't believe it belongs to the telco operators -- there are so many retail channels. Who benefit more in the area? I don't think it's the telco companies. They sell smartphones and get rich? I don't think so. So it's decided by who can provide a good product to them. So that's why I don't think who will be better in the market -- it just depends on who can do more aggression.

From me personally, I believe the PC industry should be more aggressive than smartphone companies. Because, you know, MSI is one of the key manufacturers, number 4 or 5 in the PC industry. I believe we are very aggressive. Just to mention like ASUSTeK, they also are very aggressive.

So going back to the PC market: MSI has made a few 3D gaming computers, so do you think 3D is the future for desktop computing or even on laptops?

For 3D, at MSI we released this kind of product maybe two or three years ago. In that time we adopted two solutions: one is shutter glass, and the other one is passive. With shutter glass you must wear the glasses. If you spend a long time watching those content... personally I try to use it and test, and I don't think it's good. Maybe for some special content you can enjoy it, but for long-term use I don't think it is a good product. So, for 3D, I believe it should be without any glasses. I believe glassesless should be the real product for 3D. I think it's not so easy at this stage because you need a very good refresh rate in the LCD to support. With the current technology, it still needs time to fix this issue.

What do you think is the best product at MSI?

For notebook, gaming I think, because it is one of our main focus products, especially like the GT780 series, we really listen to many gamers suggest what spec they need, and we base on this opinion to implement this model. So, for notebook, I think this one should be a very good product for us. Of course, the AIO is one of our very good product lines with very good reputation. For motherboards we have some very good competition products, especially, you know, military components. It's not so easy to get the Department of Defense...

The United States of America?

Yeah. It proves our products' reliability is very good. Also, we have a completely new product: the cleaning robot. We built this product using technologies from our robot team, which has been around since seven or eight years ago. You may think it's very easy, but in some artificial intelligence, I think it's not so easy. So that's why this product, I hope, can create another business, separate from PC.

Yeah, it's kind of the first product going away from your core business. Alright, well, thank you very much for your time, Mr. Huang!

You're welcome!

This interview first appeared in Distro issue 38.