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Acer: Alive, and thirsty for Apple juice

Lanci levels lance at iTunes

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Analysis Bought an Acer lately? Chances are you were looking for a modern, well-designed notebook/netbook/desktop/whatever and found that Acer does a good job at a decent price. What you were not doing was buying into the "Acer Lifestyle". Acer Plc is not Apple Inc.

But now Acer has pretentions to that end. Number two behind HP in the worldwide computer market, Acer gathered together journalists across the globe in New York this week to announce two major new departures from its traditional role as an IT hardware provider. It has decided that the Tablet business is part of its future (like Apple), and will become a content aggregator by setting up an online store, called Alive, that bears a striking similarity to Cupertino's iTunes Store.

GianFranco Lanci, CEO and President of the company, acquired by Acer from TI when it took over TI's notebook division in 1997, has in thirteen years honed the company into a lean machine making record profits across EMEA. The remarkable financial figures don't tell the whole story, though - on Lanci's watch Acer has also been able to differentiate itself with some considerable design flair, and the way it has embraced new technological opportunities such as extended battery life has been more than a mere textbook exercise.

Would it be a huge stretch to imagine Acer following a similar path to Apple? Certainly when Lanci hymns the opportunities of "Digital Convergence" at an event whose theme is summed up with the single word "Interact", there seems to be a turtle-neck and jeans-wearing Steve Jobs struggling to emerge from the paunchy, balding corporate suit addressing us from the podium.

But unlike Jobs, who often seems to be playing only to the discerning elite in the posh seats, Lanci is ready to bellow his message to the world. "There are already more than two billion users worldwide assessing the Internet," he told the journalists assembled in New York on Tuesday. "But [in terms of the total world population] this is only 30 per cent penetration. I think we will see in the next three years another 500 to 600 million new Internet users. And more than two thirds of these will be mobile users."

Lanci intends Acer to be ready for them, with a range of five inch, seven inch and 10 inch tablet devices promised for early next year. "We're used to the PC having a couple of different form-factors," he said. "I think we will see in the future a variety of form-factor devices, satisfying different needs. It's going to be a very exciting world. And this is the world where we want to play."

In a declaration of independence from Wintel he promises "different operating systems - not only one operating system," running on a range of different processors, including Qualcomm and the nVidia Tegra system-on-a-chip.

But his vision of new form factors extends beyond the tablet. On demonstration at the event was a portable device the size and heft of a 14-inch laptop that Acer calls the Iconia. Strongly reminiscent of the much smaller Libretto W100 shown to the press by Toshiba earlier this year (or the even smaller Nintendo DS), the device replaces the traditional keyboard with a second multi-touch 14 inch screen, which optionally does duty as a virtual keyboard and media control panel.

Technically the Iconia is a marvel. But its hulking notebook form-factor and the necessarily limited life of a battery yoked to a pair of hungry back-lit screens make it hard to see how it might fit into Acer's game plan - or indeed into any punter's idea of a grand and a half's worth of IT value. If you want a clamshell keyboard-sized device you expect a keyboard, and if you don't want a keyboard you'll settle for a tablet.

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