Razer CEO on Windows, indie developers, running the Blade 'full bore'

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On Thursday, I sat down for an interview with Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan. He had just finished announcing updates to his company's line of Blade laptops — a refresh of the 17-inch Blade Pro and the unveiling of a 14-inch Blade — and as such, he had a lot to say. In particular, Tan criticized Dell and HP, expressed a massive amount of disappointment in the PC industry as a whole, and he had some praise for Apple too. All of that is covered in an article I wrote, Razer's outspoken CEO slams HP and Dell, says he 'loves Apple'. But there are a lot of interesting tidbits that didn't make it into that story.

Tan also shared with me his views on Windows 8 as an OS for gamers, what he looks forward to in Windows 8.1, indie game developers, Razer's Switchblade UI (which isn't seen on the 14-inch Blade), and wearable technology, among other topics. There's a lot that got left out of the article, but we thought gamers in particular would want to hear what Tan has to say about all these things. With that in mind, below is a Q&A style write up of my interview with Tan. Questions are in bold.

You’ve given a lot of props to Apple design in announcing the 14-inch Blade. You even showed the inside of the laptop chassis on stage, showed the way everything was laid out and designed, which was a very Apple like thing to do. They’re obviously someone you all look up to, right?

I love Apple products. I think they do an incredible job in terms of industrial design. But, for us, it’s also been an issue of creative professionals coming to us after Apple moved out of the 17-inch space. All of a sudden, we are the only company in town that has a 17-inch laptop, that is super powerful, with a nice, thin form factor. And we had a lot of game developers who came to us and they just outfitted their entire studios with 17-inch Razer Blades at that time.

But, also, it’s been a long time since anyone’s been passionate about a PC. HP’s doing a horrible job with it. Dell’s doing a horrible job with it. They just don’t want to do anything with the PC anymore. Look, HP tried to get rid of their PC division and Dell said we’re not a PC company anymore, we’re now an enterprise company. For us, when we entered this space it was crazy. It makes absolutely no business sense. It’s a thin margin business. But for us, we’re building product that we want ourselves. And the fact that when we launch a product, for a company as small as ours, and we get so much attention for the Blade two years ago, and we’re still getting attention, it’s not a matter of extending our brand. It’s just us building products people really, really want.

You’re really unhappy with the PC industry, huh?

I’m super disappointed with what’s been happening in the PC industry. With what Dell and HP have been doing. You know, lots of people have been talking about the death of the PC recently. And we don’t think the PC is dying. When was the last time anybody has been passionate about a PC? It doesn’t make sense that a company like ours should be pushing the envelope in innovation. But we’re happy about what the Blade Pro has done, and we’re happy about what the Blade is going to do. We really want to change things.

You mentioned in unveiling the smaller Blade that in online forums you stalked, a lot of gamers were saying ‘hey, we want a smaller form factor’ and 14 inches kept jumping out. Is that why the 14-inch Blade exists?

It was planned for a long time actually. We tend to explore all kinds of different concepts. All kinds of different product lines and its been brewing for awhile. At Razer we’re all gamers ourselves and we tend to come up with products that we want ourselves. So yeah, it’s been brewing for awhile.

So did the forums push you over the edge, or was that just a happy coincidence?

It was just a happy coincidence, yeah.

Who are the target markets for your three PC products, the Blade Pro, the Blade and the Edge. With the smaller Blade out, why would anyone want an Edge now?

Right at the top we’ve got the Razer Blade Pro. That’s for the hardcore users, the guys who want a desktop replacement, a beautiful large screen, all the horsepower to play the games and a large full sized keyboard and stuff like that. And of course we’ve got creative professionals too. We realized that, with Apple leaving the 17-inch space, all these guys were coming on board buying the 17-inch model for photography, rendering and stuff like that. It kind of pushed us in that direction. So it’s kind of clear there’s some Blade Pro segmentation. The 14-inch came about — well, myself, I travel like crazy and I just wanted something really thin, light, ultrabook weight, and still powerful enough to be a gaming laptop. For those who value portability more than anything else — that’s the 14-inch blade. Now the tablet, the thing of it is you’ll be looking at it in bed, watching movies. It’s more of a media consumption device and something you’ll just grab for a day trip. for example the Blade would be something I’d take for a two or three day trip, something I’d want to do some work on, something I need for productivity. Anything more than that, I’ll bring my Blade Pro.

The Switchblade UI shows up on the Blade Pro, but it’s not on the 14-inch Blade. What does it’s absence from the smaller Blade mean? You’ve really touted it as something for creative professionals, even more so than gamers really.

We’ve got more gaming applications on it still. It’s focused on hardcore gamers and those who just want all the bells and whistles, and also for creative professionals. we’ve opened up the SDK to third party developers. the sky’s the limit. I suspect about 75% of the Switchblade apps will still be focused on gaming. But, this is kind of a personal thing for myself, nobody is really taking care of the PC game developer. The console game developers, they’ve got Microsoft and they’ve got Playstation and stuff like that. For indie game development, i wanted to be able to provide them a platform for PC game development. And lots of PC game developers are already using the Razer Blade Pro for their game development. And that’s where the discount on the Pro for Indie game developers came about — it’s below our cost by the way.

So is this all a sign of you guys pulling away from the Switchblade UI, since it wasn’t on the 14-inch Blade?

That’s about space actually. We just couldn’t fit it with a full-sized keyboard. We would have put it in if we could. We’re still very involved with the Switchblade UI, we’ve still got a lot of apps on it, we still have a big team behind it. We’re investing in it in a big way.

A lot of folks in the gaming industry gripe about having a tough time getting their games to the public — whether it’s on a platform like Xbox or even Steam. You all have moved from mice and keyboards to laptops and tablets. Will you ever move into something like digital distribution of games too? Is that the next step? Because it seems like every move you all make is a move to push you into being a gaming company and not just a mice and keyboard company.

Well, we’ve never been about just mice and keyboards anyway. Curiously enough, we’ve got one of the worlds largest gaming platforms. We don’t do digital distribution. I think Stream does a wonderful job of that. But we do have one of the largest fan bases on facebook. On Synapse, we have 3 million gamers online on a daily basis. That’s huge. We’ve got Razer Comms, and in three weeks we had 250,000 guys come on board to help us beta test it. To a certain extent, I’m not going to take credit for it, you can ask the guys. But when we see games we like, we feature it to our community. And when we do, boom, kickstarter numbers go way up. We see ourselves more as an enabler. We want to push Steam — I think Steam is an incredible platform. But we also want to push Origin, and Green Man Gaming, and Good Ol’ Games and stuff like that. We’re an enabler because we’ve got a great community. And we want to make really great hardware, so developers can make better games.

How many laptops and tablets have you sold?

Well, we’ve sold quite a large number of them. We can’t keep them in stock. With the Edge, we sold out our first three months of inventory in half an hour. So, we’re trying to make them as fast as we can.

So is that a hundred thousand? A million? Because, if you make a dozen and sell a dozen, you’re still selling out of your stock.

Well, we’re definitely selling more than a dozen. We’re not disclosing numbers at this point in time. I think our challenge right now is just simply making them. Because of the way we’ve designed our laptops and tablets, CNC machines are required and they’re all precision tooled and engineered. It take a lot of time to produce a single unit. We had plans to go global, in terms of distribution. But we only been able to try to satisfy North American demand. We’re great at design, but we’re probably not very good at operations and we’re working on that.

A well known issue with laptops for gaming, is almost none of them can run a CPU and GPU at full bore, at the same time, because basically there isn’t enough thermal headroom. Is that something you can do on the 14-inch model?

Yes. We haven’t underclocked anything. You can run it all at full bore. We’ve brought it all the way up and it’s safe.

We’ve customized almost all the parts inside the Razer Blade and everything that we could take out, we did. It’s been like designing an F1 car. Take a look at our power supply. It’s far smaller than any other PC power supplies out there, and it costs about 7 times as much to produce than off the shelf power supplies most PCs use. We design not to price. We design to what we want ourselves and after that, we peg a price to it.

Are you making a profit, or selling at a loss, or breaking even?

Our focus has always been to build great products. We don’t have a great profit margin, I’ll be candid about it. But is it fucking cool? Yeah, it is. I’m just so happy with the Blade.

So what’s next for you guys? More hardware? A thinner or lighter Edge? Touch in the Blade line? Windows 8 with no touch seems like a big omission.

The start button is coming back — I think that’s really cool. I’ve heard a lot of hate on Windows 8 by gamers. I think it’s OK. I don’t hate on Windows 8. Once you get used to it, it’s fine. The only thing I missed was the start button and now they’re bringing it back. And, I don’t know if it’s in 8.1, but the ability to boot right straight to the desktop — those are the two things I wanted. If they put the start button back and let me boot straight to the desktop, I’m OK. You know the rest of it is just OK, but it is better than 7.

So is that why there’s no touch in the Blade laptops? Because you’re just going straight to the desktop to play games and skipping the touch-centric UI and apps?

We build products for ourselves and we don’t really use touch for gaming right now. Will we put touch in there in the future, when it’s relevant. But for right now, the Blade line is the most relevant product for gamers.

What about creating a Steam box, or something like a console for PC gamers who want to play on their TV, on their couch?

The thing I like about PCs is choice. You can go to any hardware vendor you want, you can play games on any hardware you want. I like the Xbox, and I like the PlayStation, though I play the Xbox more. But I love the PC. I think a console, for us, is not a great idea. We really sit around and ask ourselves, wouldn’t it be cool to do this? To build a tablet that can run PC games? Then we build it, then we price it. Other companies start with a price point they want to hit and stuff like that. We don’t do any of that. We’re horrible at designing to price. But our roadmap does extend out for years. We’re always looking at least two generations ahead. We’ve been working on the Blade since 2007. For every one of these, there are tens if not hundreds of designs that get thrown away. We do a lot of experimentation. We look at everything from wearables, to augmented reality, to all kinds of stuff.

Have you guys built something like an Oculus Rift or Google Glass for yourselves?

We look at everything. The difference for us is, we tend not to like to push science projects out. We like to have a finished design, a fully realized product out to market. We have very few skus, even for our peripherals. We’ve got about a total of 18 products and that’s it. And PCs take up three. But this isn’t our final announcement for the end of the year.

I have to ask you about this — the dime thing, come on. Thin as dime? Not really. That slogan should have been shorter than a standing dime, right? I have to call some BS there. Those are two different things.

It wasn't going to be a laptop if anyone thought of thinner than a dime laying flat. We just thought it was pretty funny. Thin as a standing dime just didn’t sound as good as thin as a dime. We wanted something punchy and you know, at the end of the day, it’s super thin and we’re happy about it.