Project Christine, Razer's revelatory concept for a subscription-based modular computer, may be an idea too innovative for its own good.
Despite Razer's willingness to take chances with off-the-wall, seemingly implausible ideas — and often succeed — Christine is one idea that can't happen without a lot of support from the massive PC manufacturer market, and it doesn't seem like those original equipment manufacturers are very interested.
Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan used this year's CES to unveil his company's take on "the world's most modular gaming PC design." Each component of the concept computer is enclosed in a mineral oil-cooled chamber and can be easily installed into the system's PCI Express-powered backbone. Everything from the CPU to GPU and memory can be popped into the system.
Perhaps more intriguing is that Tan's broader plans for the system is to tie it to a subscription service that would allow users to pay a monthly fee to essentially always have a top-of-the-line computer.
For the project to come to fruition, Tan and Razer need two things: gamer support and PC manufacturer support. At a recent interview in New York, Tan told me they seem to have the first, but he's not convinced they'll ever get the second.
"We're trying to talk to some of the other PC manufacturers about it because I think the difference for us is that we are really focused on our user, right," Tan said. "We've been trying to speak to other OEMs and I think the response has been generally, 'OK, what's the forecast for this? How many units are you going to ship? What are the margins?' and stuff like that where we're being very open with them to say, 'Look, we don't know.'"
Tan isn't completely surprised by the lackluster response. It's the same one he received when he first started shopping around the idea for Razer's ultra-thin laptop, the Blade.
"When we first launched the Blade, we went to a lot of different companies at that point of time, and everybody said, 'No, because nobody wants to buy this. Nobody wants to buy super thin, super powerful laptop, which is also expensive because of the costs associated with getting it so thin and powerful,'" he said. "Fast-forward three years, all of a sudden it's a huge category."
Tan believes the popularity of ultra-thin, powerful gaming laptops is due in part to Razer's decision to build the computers in-house, forgoing the need for OEMs. But he can't do that with Christine.
"Christine's a bit different because if we went out and built our own modules and platform, we would literally be creating a walled garden, which is something that we don't want to do," he said. "We want to be able to go out there with a couple of big OEMs and be able to say, look, maybe Razer does all the super high-end stuff. You guys can do all the mass-market stuff and stuff like that.
"The problem is the PC market, at this point of time, just doesn't reward innovation. It rewards commoditization. It rewards mediocre, shitty project because it's become this vicious cycle of sorts. Anyone who tries to innovate, like for Christine, everybody wants it, but they all want it to be immediately at commodity pricing. And that's the thing, we're trying to encourage the rest of the OEMs, and we're literally telling them, 'Look, we're not going to make a cent out of this. We just want to be part of an ecosystem; we're happy to open this up to everyone to do that.'"
Tan said Razer is even happy to share design schematics with third parties at no cost.
"And we're a tiny company," he said. "Some of these guys are billions of dollars. Most of them are billions of dollars. We are just the tiny guy out there trying to make a difference. Even Blade is, we managed to do it because, we could create that entire closed system by itself, but Christine, I don't know. I throw it out there to talk to the OEMs about it. That's really the final piece of the puzzle. Everything else has pretty much been done."
The key issue that Christine faces is that to work it needs to have a wide variety of choices. It can't be locked into one sort of build, one sort of computer, even one sort of brand.
"That has always been my premise all the time," Tan said. "It's got to be open. It's got to be stuff that you can swap out modules and stuff like that because we won't always have the best, for example, say, sound module.
"So, I believe that Christine, to be perfect, the utopian ideal is really an entirely open system, and at least, I'm not saying that every OEM should take on, immediately, but I think at least three to five OEMs together, we could make a huge difference to the entire PC landscape."
The concept that Tan envisions would also have a massive impact on the lifespan of PC parts. Instead of being thrown out, or left to gather dust, unwanted components would be turned back in and remain in the system for people who want lower-end parts.
"Obsolescence, wastage would go down dramatically at the same time, and when you think of costs, I mean a GTX card, 780 card, could last gamers three to four years if it's passed along and the guy who wants a top-of-the-line stuff would just have the top-of-the-line stuff," he said. "So, I think the biggest problem with Christine is really getting the people out there to use it."
And that's the problem: To launch it he needs widespread support from OEMs, and those companies only seem willing to bet on a sure thing. Tan calls the results of his early OEM conversations "a little disappointing."
"All they ask about is, 'How much money can I make out of this?' They're not interested in innovation at all," he said. "I've had shouting — not a shouting match, but I've been assertive in basically telling one of them, 'Don't you guys even want to innovate?' And, you know, the response is, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, we want to innovate, but why?' And I'm going like, 'But you guys talk about innovation all the time.' But it's just this constant obsession with revenues and margins and whatever."
The irony, Tan says, is that the subscription part of Project Christine would allow OEMs to form better relationships with their customers, something he thinks is seriously missing.
The idea for Project Christine came about the same way just about everything at Razer bubbles up: A group discussion that led to an argument of sorts.
With the launch of their own laptops, the pressure for Razer to launch a desktop has been growing, Tan said. But everything Razer makes starts, to some degree, with a single line, a concise expression of what would make their take on something different. The Blade, for instance, was born out of the line 'ultimate power and ultimate portability.' So what would the one-liner be for a desktop?
"The design philosophy of Razer, is literally, the thoughts of any gamer brought down to perhaps the most zen-like simplicity," Tan said. "So, any gamer could have designed Christine."
For the ultimate desktop, Tan said, any gamer would say it was all about power.
"Great, I agree," he said. "If it's a desktop, it's all about power, and we don't care about portability. What else do we want, though? Something super quiet, right? The third thing is we want something that's modular and upgradeable all the time, and when we talk about upgradability, we want the latest and greatest at any point of time.
"So with those things in mind we've literally designed Christine."
The idea for a subscription service was born out of the need to solve the issue of cost. A mineral oil-cooled, modular computer wouldn't be cheap, so Razer needed to come up with something that would make it affordable.
"And because this discussion takes place with a bunch of gaming guys, we're all gamers at the end of the day, it's distilling it to the perfect line," he said. "That's what we're great at."
Razer's other big CES surprise was news of their wearable smartband, Nabu. The idea for Nabu comes from Razer's bigger, broader intentions as a company.
"We don't view ourselves as a gaming company," Tan said. "We view ourselves as a company for gamers. What we literally are is a brand that works with gamers, that designs products for gamers. That's where things like Nabu will come from. It's an extension of a platform for gamers to really make use of and that's a real premise for us and for future product lines.
"Given that there are 1.4 billion gamers today, that's a massive customer base that we're looking at."
Like the Fitbit and Nike FuelBand, the Nabu works like a watch and uses a small display to impart important bits of information. It can deliver smartphone notifications and track movement and sleep patterns, and includes third-party app support.
Tan said Razer has spent three and a half years working on the device and that so far, the response by developers to get their hands on an early version has been phenomenal. With 30,000 developers already signed up for the band, Tan's estimating that the first 150,000 to 200,000 of the devices will go to developers, hopefully starting in the next 30 days or so.
"We've got a special edition for the developers," Tan said. "It's pretty cool. It's going to look different from the retail version, some special colors and stuff like that. And then after that we'll ship to the rest of the people."
Currently the Nabu is in field tests. Tan wasn't wearing one when we met because, he said, they haven't settled on the final design yet. Currently, the company is worrying over things like skin sensitivity and real-world day-to-day use of the device.
"We've got people out there running, testing them out," he said. "That's what's happening right now."
While the Nabu will have plenty of non-gaming applications, Tan and his company are also thinking about how they can incorporate their future device into gaming sessions and other Razer products, he said.
For instance, Tan said, they're looking at how they can incorporate Razer Comms, the company's in-game messaging service, into the device so players could buzz a friend's Nabu to ask them to join in a match of Titanfall or Call of Duty.
"The second thing we're looking at, and I'm personally excited about, is location-based gaming," Tan said. "Literally because these bands can communicate with each other, what will happen is you're going to get StreetPass type of games. That's on the very lowest level, but on top of that, you're looking at games like [Google's] Ingress, which I'm personally very excited about. It could alert you when you come close to a Node. Maybe it could alert you when you come close to somebody from an opposing division. While it's great to walk around looking at your phone, it's not exactly the safest thing to do. So what we're really excited about doing is getting gaming not on the phones but really the next generation onto the wrist, and I am excited about that."
But, Tan said, they don't want to put the entire gameplay on a Nabu because the device, with its small screen, isn't really suited for that.
"I see it more in terms of as a conduit for your phone, to really keep information right at your wrist at any point of time, and unobtrusive," he said. "I think the real estate on the wrist is really too small to spend too much time interacting with it. It's really this quick, half-a-second glance. We look at the smartband the same way we look at a watch. You glance at your watch, you look at the time, you carry on with stuff. What we don't want is for people to be obsessed with looking at their watches, because we think that [the smartphone] is so much more accessible with so much more real estate and processing power."
Tan is quick to point out, during our one-hour interview, that his company has never killed a project, no matter how fanciful. Not really. The closest they've gotten to killing one of their concepts is to simply not launch it, but repurpose part of the ideas.
For instance, there's the Switchblade, an ultra-small laptop-like device that was only slightly larger than the Nintendo DS and included an adaptive keyboard that could change as you played. While the device never launched, the Switchblade's user interface found its way into the Blade.
"I think the difference for us is, we design products that we use ourselves and that we are passionate about," he said. "And they may iterate and change, but we haven't actually killed any products yet. That's a thing. And I would say that, if a day comes that we will kill a product, it's because we don't use it ourselves, I suppose. I can't think of anything that we've killed so far."
And that includes Project Fiona, a powerful tablet framed by twin game controllers that eventually starting selling as the Razer Edge.
Despite its peculiar design, the Edge is still for sale and, according to Tan, doing really well.
"It's shipping well," he said. "I think it's still on Amazon at this point in time. I think from spec-wise, it's still the world's most powerful tablet and we've been really looking really closely at it in terms of future iterations.
"But we're not talking about that right now."
Reinventing the Wheel
Tan knows that Razer is a company that people seem to love intensely or hate intensely. He thinks that's because the company has a penchant for reinventing the wheel. That's certainly the case with the mechanical keyboard, or, more specifically, the microswitches that their mechanical keyboards use.
"This is the exact sort of thing that Razer does," he said. "It's like the Blade. Why did we have to reinvent the laptop? Good God, the amount of flak we got for saying that gaming laptops should be thin and powerful was insane. Now it's time for the mechanical keyboard."
Tan reckons that Razer is one of the largest supporters of the mechanical keyboard right now.
"We ship the most and we probably could have stayed how we were if it was just a business for us," he said. "But at the end of the day it's always about improving things. That's why guys like us and [car maker] Koenigsegg share design philosophies. Will a Ford get you from point A to point B? Absolutely. Will a Koenigsegg do the same thing? But it's about how they do it better, faster, more precise."
When Razer reexamined the mechanical switch, the actuator that sits under every key in a keyboard, all the company really did was tweak the common design.
"But those tweaks are immense," he said. "We moved the actuation point by 0.3 millimeters, such that, for the pro gamers, it will be much, much faster.
"These are the kinds of things we do from time to time that we are really proud of. We just like to tinker and iterate on things."
And as with much of what Razer does, while no one has asked yet, the company would be willing to sell their mechanical switches to anyone who asks.
Despite all of the things that Razer is involved in, or getting involved in, from mice and keyboards to laptops, desktops and smartbands, there is one surprising blank spot in their line-up: A Valve-supported Steam Box.
Why aren't they one of the early supporters, I ask Tan.
"Well, I think they're doing something really, really cool," he said. "We're super excited about what Valve is doing, and we definitely have very close relationships with Valve and we are constantly talking all the time. You know, a lot of people have said Razer is a bit like a Valve in essence. We have our own pace, we have our own cadence of sorts, I think, and for us it's ready when it's ready. Definitely one of those things that we are super excited about but we really want, if we do a Steam Box, is for it to be the ultimate Steam Box, if we do one. If and when that day happens, you can definitely count on it."
What it won't be is Christine, which Tan says would be a bad fit for the ideals that power the Steam Box.
Like all devices that Razer makes, a Steam Box by the company would need to have a single, zen-like description, something that distills the concept to that single liner.
"Do you have an idea of what that single liner for the Steambox would be?" I ask Tan.
"Oh, yes, yes, yes, of course," he said.
"Can you tell me?"
"No I cannot, because I would say that all gamers already know it," he said. "And that's my point, we always have this Socratic kind of discussion."
Perhaps the best example of Razer's approach to all things design and computer is their recent collaboration with Swedish hyper-car manufacturer Koenigsegg, creator of the fastest production car in the world.
A few weeks back Razer announced the deal, but it wasn't a collaboration designed to make money. In fact, the end result of the design collaboration was six laptops. Two of them went to Christian Koenigsegg, two went to Tan and the remaining two were given away to Razer fans. None were sold.
The deal came about simply because Koenigsegg and Tan respected each other's companies. It helped, too, that Koenigsegg's son is a big fan of Razer.
"This wasn't a business collaboration," Tan said. "It was a design collaboration. I mean, he's a design superstar in his own right from an automotive perspective. So for us, we just said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if you guys worked on a Razer-themed car and we worked on a Koenigsegg-themed laptop?' And he wanted one. I wanted one."
To be clear, Tan got one of the themed laptops, not a car.
"Unfortunately, he wouldn't swap the car for the laptop, but it's cool," he said. "So we basically made a couple, and the funniest thing is because it's not business arrangement, we didn't really spend a lot of time discussing what's going to happen.
"Now the funny thing is now we're talking, wow, there's such insane demand for the Koenigsegg laptop, so he just dropped me an email about five days ago, which I have not responded because I've been traveling, saying, 'Hey, this is cool. We want more of these.' And I'm like, 'OK, we'll get back to you.' We got to thinking about this, because it's not designed for sale."
So now Tan is "sorting out" whether they can, and should, start producing the Koenigsegg laptops for sale.
"We just haven't reached that point of thinking exactly what we'll do," he said.
Tan lives under a constant fear, but not the one you'd expect from the head of a company that takes so many chances in so many high-profile, expensive ways.
His fear is that one day his company will stop taking risks, that it will become afraid of launching wild ideas just because it wants to see them come to life.
"One of the things that I'm constantly afraid of at Razer is that we will get too comfortable doing the things we want and be afraid of doing things that would harm the company. It's one of those constant fears I have that we won't bet the farm always. As we grow as a company, and I keep telling our guys, this isn't about money. This isn't about anything. We've got an opportunity to really move things forward as a really tiny company. We're officially incorporated as a real business since about '05, so we've been around for less than 10 years, but in less than 10 years, we've really upended a lot of things in the PC space, and now wearables. And now, from a software perspective. So I think that's stuff that we really want to do.
"There's been talks out there of us going public and all that kind of stuff. You know, people asking, what are you going to do? What's the next level? We're one of the biggest brands in technology right now, in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and we're not a gaming company, but we've got a software layer, and the brand and the hardware layer. I think the future is really us taking big bets all the time, and having fun. You know, life is too short.