Acer: Alive, and thirsty for Apple juice
Lanci levels lance at iTunes
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.
The idea of a virtual keyboard that can be replaced at the sweep of a single user-programmable gesture by a straightforward second screen, or a device control console or pretty well anything else that will fit into 14 inches of LCD real estate sounds appealing - until you try it. With no haptic feedback the virtual keyboard is a dead thing beneath your fingers, and if you're any kind of a typist you'll quickly pine for the feel of real travelling keys.
I'm betting that the Iconia won't find a market, but its fate is a diversion from the real message emerging from this New York event. While others in the IT and media business are loudly asserting that Content is King, Acer, the hardware manufacturer, has discovered the ultimate truth: that the user wants to become King of Content.
Says Lanci: "Users want to control the flow of the media. They don't want to be told what to do." With an evident dig at Apple he goes on: "And we see companies in this industry with a tendency to tell people what they need to do, rather than helping people to do what they want to do."
Lanci's Law is: "People want the media they want, when they want it and where they want it." This democratic spirit, he told the 100 or so assembled journalists from around the world, is the principle behind the new Alive store. Democratic, that is, as long as the punter votes Acer.
Lanci sees the Alive store as a natural extension of Acer's "Clear.fi" strategy, a content-sharing system based on DLNA intended to guarantee that any digital content stored on an Acer device can be shared seamlessly with the other Acer devices through a common media interface. Because of its DLNA  underpinnings, media on compliant devices from other manufacturers can also join in, although without the convenience of the Clear.fi interface.
The Alive store - a melange of music, videos, news, ebooks and casual games - dares to take this exclusivity a step further. The store will only be available through a client application; the client application will only run on Acer devices.
It's a strategy that may rebound on Acer, or one that Acer will quickly have to abandon. Apple customers buy into Apple; Acer customers merely buy Acer. And while Apple's "closed shop" philosophy operates mostly within the Mac/iPhone/iPad ecosystem, the iTunes client at least runs cross-platform, offering all Windows users a welcoming bridge over to the Apple world.
Acer seems to have no such plans for Alive. And in its first incarnation, available here in the UK shortly before Christmas, the store won't even accommodate the whole Acer range. Machines older than a few years, it emerged after close questioning, won't be supported. And the newer non-Windows devices are similarly excluded from this first wave, although a cross-platform implementation is promised for early next year.
Clearly Acer has taken a deep breath and is readying itself for a sporting run at the new opportunities. Lanci, less inspirational as a presenter than Apple's Steve Jobs, is nonetheless a smart operator, and I suppose it is just about on the cards that he may manage to upgrade the brand from great-for-the-price to lifestyle choice. But I hope he has a Plan B. ®