Taiwan's leading PC maker and the fifth largest in the world, Acer, is entering the huge global consumer electronics market. It has a showcase of new products scheduled for shipment later this year and in 1997.
At a celebration in Taipei of the 20th anniversary of the company's 1976 founding, Acer chairman and CEO Stan "me-too is not my way" Shih said that information appliances are ready to lead a second home-activity revolution, following the television revolution. "I believe information appliances are going to change our daily lives, so we don't want to miss this opportunity," said Shih.
In the near future, homes will be equipped with multiple information devices, many of which will be priced from $A300 to $1,400, and will come in different sizes and shapes - often capable of presenting interactive multimedia content, he added.
To differentiate such products from its core PC business, Acer is placing all information appliances under its consumer electronics products umbrella. Although the company is very serious about becoming a major player in the consumer field, Acer still expects its core PC business to remain its main revenue-earner, officials said.
"By the year 2000, consumer electronics products are expected to make up 15 per cent of Acer's total revenue," said Shih. In 1995, total Acer Group revenues reached over $A7.2 billion.
New push in consumer products
In a technology showcase at the Taiwan convention centre, Acer showed several devices that will be rolled out over the next year:
The AcerVista, the company's first television set, is a wide-screen HDTV model based on a 28-inch picture tube, which also is capable of displaying VGA graphics off a PC at resolutions up to 640 by 480 pixels. It is now on sale in Taiwan, followed by rollouts in international markets in the next few months, said K Y Lee, president of Acer Peripherals, the Acer Group member company that developed the television.
In September, the company will launch its first game console, the x86-based AcerEden, which was developed in cooperation with Japan's Hitachi. Designed to be connected to either a television set or PC monitor, AcerEden is built around standard PC architecture, and will be capable of playing some existing PC game and education CD-ROM titles. In addition, Acer is currently developing native titles in-house as well as talking to third-party game developers.
The first-generation model will be powered by 486-class processors, and retail at around $US299, said Simon Lin, president and CEO of Acer's Information Products Business Unit. In the future, Acer also plans to release AcerEden models with built-in modems that also will function as Internet-access devices, similar to Apple Computer's Pippin-based architecture. In Japan, the game console will be marketed by Hitachi, which in September will start selling the device under its own brand name.
The Acer Kids PC is targeted at children aged three years and up, and is planned for release by year's end with a $US199 pricetag, said Lin. Designed to use a TV set as its display, Acer Kids PC will be based on a single chip, utilising the 386SX processor technology Acer licensed from Intel earlier this year.
By 1997, Acer also plans to introduce a Digital Video Disk (DVD) player, which will be able to play both MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 titles authored for the forthcoming disk media standard that is expected to replace today's audio CD and video CD standards. Codenamed AcerDave, the DVD player will be the centrepiece in Acer's "Home Entertainment Center", which also will include a surround sound system and power amplifier.
Also by 1997, Acer plans to introduce a set-top box for accessing interactive television services. The company showcased a set-top box prototype featuring a CD-ROM drive.
Acer will also enter the digital mobile phone handset market with the AcerGSM. It will be rolled out in worldwide markets by next year.
NC alternative from Acer
Acer has launched its AcerBasic and AcerASC lines of $US500 to $1,000 desktop PCs aimed at offering low-cost solutions for home and corporate users, respectively. It hopes to jump-start a new market for full-fledged PCs priced around half that of conventional models. Acer Australia is still evaluating the machine, and has not yet decided whether it will sell it here.
If successful, the worldwide market for such low-cost PCs could well grow to twice the size of that for traditional PCs within five to seven years, said Stan Shih, Acer's chairman and CEO.
Analysts, meanwhile, found it difficult to predict how the AcerBasic concept will fare in the marketplace. "Will the AcerBasic be successful? No one knows," said C E Wang, an analyst at market researcher IDC's Taiwan office. "There is no market research showing any support for such a concept, so we'll just have to wait and see."
The AcerBasic line is aimed at lower-income users in developing countries, providing a device which combines both Internet capability and standard stand-alone desktop PC functionality, with retail pricing starting at around $US500.
Acer has started selling the first AcerBasic models in Taiwan this month, followed by rollouts in major target markets such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, Russia and the People's Republic of China within the next two to three months, officials said.
The AcerASC, or Application Specific Computers, line of custom-built PCs, meanwhile, is targeted at enterprises and organisations in markets such as the US and Europe, such as airlines, banks and retail stores, that need hundreds or thousands of desktop clients, without necessarily needing full-function standard PCs.
Acer will build AcerASCs according to such customers' requirements, with minimum volumes of 100 units and about one-month lead time, officials said. It expects to be able to price the systems within the $US500 to $US1,000 price range using today's open, industry-standard PC architecture, while at the same time giving buyers a broad range of processor, memory and storage options.
Unlike the similarly priced network computer, touted by Oracle as the new computing paradigm, the AcerBasic offers better value by offering both networking and traditional stand-alone PC functionality, officials said.
Consequently, Acer currently has no plans to introduce a pure network appliance under the Acer brand, since such devices by definition are essentially useless when not connected to a network, they added.
"For many consumers in the developing world, the choice will not really be between the AcerBasic and today's more expensive PCs, but between AcerBasic and nothing," said Shih. "To date, many people have been excluded from enjoying the benefits of the information technology age. Acer is now changing all that and AcerBasic is one of the first products to be affordably priced for many consumers."
Powered by a Cyrix-designed 133MHz 5x86 processor supplied by IBM, the AcerBasic will offer performance comparable to an Intel 75MHz Pentium PC, Shih claimed.
The AcerBasic's standard $US500 configuration includes 4Mb of RAM, one 31/2in 1.44Mb diskette drive, an integrated 100Mb removable media Iomega Zip drive, three 16-bit ISA expansion slots, a 14.4Kbit/sec fax modem, sound card, keyboard and mouse - but no monitor, officials said.
Users can choose between connecting AcerBasic to a standard VGA monitor or an NTSC or PAL TV.
Software bundles will vary from country to country, but will include at least Microsoft's DOS 6.22 and Windows 3.1, Internet Explorer and several game and educational titles, as well as Acer's in-house developed graphical user interface aimed at making the PC easier for novices to use, they added.
In Taiwan, Acer will also include a software bundle preinstalled on two Zip media, one with Microsoft's DOS 6.22 and the traditional Chinese version of Windows 3.1, and the other with 14 game and education titles. At the high end, a multimedia version with sound card, monitor, speakers, MPEG-1 card and a 4x CD-ROM drive, will sell for $NT29,000 ($A1,380).
All AcerBasic models will come with a one-year warranty, although users will have to bring the system back to the retail outlet for repairs.
Tel: (02) 870 1999ÊFax: (02) 878 6227