Last week, I said that Razer’s kind of insane Project Fiona gaming tablet is the future of PC gaming, which sounds a little crazy. I guess I should explain.
It’s not that Fiona itself is literally the future of PC gaming — a tablet with a pair of joysticks bolted to the side is the PC equivalent of a reject from the Island of Dr Moreau. (Though I did have a grand time playing Fiona.) It’s everything that Fiona represents.
“A couple of years ago we realised that the PC giants weren’t innovating anymore. They kind of stopped,” argues Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan. Surveying the PC landscape over the last couple of years, well, things were looking a little grim. I mean, the largest PC maker in the world tried to sell its PC business. The insane things, like the Dell Adamo and HP’s Voodoo brand? Killed. There are a couple of exceptions, of course, even in PC gaming — we really loved Dell-owned Alienware’s m11x micro gaming rig, for instance. But by and large it’s been true. Why take the risk? Even the new-and-improved ultrabook onslaught from last week, which delivered some beautiful machines, clearly descend from the MacBook Air and spring from a hefty bankroll from Intel.
Then there’s the Blade. Two years in development, it’s Razer’s first attempt at building a platform, and it goes against every rule of PCs, especially gaming PCs — except for its ludicrously expensive $US2800 price tag. There’s just one model. You can’t configure it. It’s not a thick, angular box that defies every principle of aerodynamics. Machined out of aluminium, it’s smooth, round and sturdy. It actually feels a lot like a unibody MacBook Pro, down to the lid scoop. But it has the first ever laptop keyboard with zero ghosting and a multitouch glass trackpad that’s also a screen. (Have you ever watched K-pop on your trackpad? I have.)
So, Razer is building crazy things. Actively. Tan says that besides the three products we’ve seen this year — the Switchblade, Blade and Fiona — they’ve “had maybe 10 different products we’ve never shown that have gone all the way to completion.” But the real difference between Razer and the other PC makers that Tan is slogging? Details. “We’ve had products pulled two days before launch… I’ve seen guys cry, but at the end of the day it’s about perfection.” Razer is ultimately built around details — weird, aggro, perpetually adolescent, neon, EXTREME details, but details nonetheless.
And when Tan complains, exasperated that some piece-of-shit manufacturer in China wouldn’t make his USB ports green unless he ordered a million of them, you feel his pain, in no small part because of the way he speaks. The Singapore-born Tan has a curiously studied and smooth blend of accents — it’s hard not to believe every word he says, or at least believe that he believes every word he says, no matter how grandiose. I could listen to him talk all day, about anything, really. Maybe genetics.
When no one would build the Blade for Razer, Tan bought an original design manufacturer (ODM). Nearly everything in the Blade that isn’t commodity silicon is a custom part, according to Tan, because he didn’t want to “go to a Taiwanese factory or Chinese factory and slap a logo on that. Everyone is doing that.” He holds up the Blade’s power supply, a slim black rectangle that almost looks like a brick of drugs, branded by the drug cartel/snake-worshipping cult that produced it, and wonders why other PC makers haven’t designed their power supplies as wonderfully as his. (This detail, perhaps intentionally, begs comparison to another computer company with wonderfully designed power supplies that every PC maker looks to for design innovation and managed to take over the tech world.)
But for all of Tan’s of vision, “bringing innovation back to gaming” and “pushing the envelope” and being synonymous with PC gaming itself, how is that a tiny company that’s mostly known for building pricey peripherals for gaming’s most notoriously pimpled and petulant set is going to make a scratch in, much less take over the PC world? Well, for one, Razer’s not so tiny anymore. It just picked up $US50 million in venture capital, and I was shocked when Tan told me they have more than 400 employees now. And the hardware team has all the right buzzwords: They acquired the entire engineering team of OQO back in 2009. And they’re bolstered by ex-Apple and ex-HP engineers, along with a bunch of other guys who designed and built Microsoft and Intel’s Project Origami oh so long ago (which you see shades of in Fiona). So Razer might just be able to pull this caper off. Maybe.
What happens if it does? Well, I suspect PC makers won’t be looking solely to Apple for “inspiration”. Tan hopes they follow him, even. (That’s a good thing, especially if they start caring again, to boot.) And I think Joel might just be even more right than he thought he was, that Razer’s model might look a whole lot like the future of PCs, especially as it becomes an increasingly niche space — ironically because of the lack of hardware innovation.
They just need to ditch the snakes and black and neon. If you’re going to take over the world, it’s time to grow up guys.
Video: Woody Jang