For more than seven years, the man who was once Singapore's tech poster boy became all but invisible, there was only silence and no media interviews from Mr Sim Wong Hoo, the poly graduate who co-founded Creative Technology in 1981 and became the youngest billionaire here within two heady decades.
His company became Singapore's first to list on New York's high-tech Nasdaq exchange and its share price hit a high of $64 on March 28, 2000. Then Creative's fortunes changed, the stock price slid and in a cost-cutting measure, it delisted from Nasdaq. Creative stayed listed in Singapore, but its share price dropped to below $2.50 last year, its lowest ever.
Suddenly last September, Mr Sim resurfaced at a press conference in Singapore. And he appeared again in February, in Beijing.
There's a new energy that gives the feel that the Sim Wong Hoo of old is back in action and excited about something new.
It is his HanZpad, the tablet computer he believes is a winner, given the strategy he's worked out with two dozen partners and his designs on the China market.
Gone were the blue buttoned-down Oxford shirt and black trousers that Mr Sim Wong Hoo once wore like a uniform.
Instead, it was a bright red adidas Sundown Marathon T-shirt paired with blue trousers, a beige cloth cap and bright white running shoes.
It was as if the co-founder and chief executive of Creative Technology had come fresh from the finish line.
Running, he explained later over the telephone, clears his mind and helps him to plan.
It was probably during his lOkm runs from his home in Dairy Farm Road to his office in Jurong's International Business Park that his tablet strategy took shape.
Energetic, ebullient and almost effervescent, Mr Sim, 57, is like the Creative boss of old as he explains why he believes his tablet computer, the HanZpad, will be the company's next tour de force.
In a rare interview, he says this is not just about producing a tablet computer. It's the whole deal.
Creative will control the HanZpad's hardware specifications, chips and content framework. But it will have no control over GoogIe's Android software, which will power the tablet.
This is unlike Apple, which controls the hardware and software for its tablet device, the iPad, and approves every app sold by its App Store.
What will set Creative apart from other tablet makers is that it will have Chinese-language content developed for the HanZpad, including textbooks for mathematics, science and other subjects.
"This will be our competitive edge against competitors such as Apple that do not have Chinese content. We'll also encourage other developers to build apps for the HanZpad," he says, his excitement palpable.
He reveals that he had spent $1 billion on research and development over the past 10 years to design new chips called ZMS, and other hardware technology to power the HanZpad.
"Yes, we spent a lot of money and maybe we got into the red," he says. "I ask for patience from our shareholders and investors. This is something that we needed to do so that we could move forward with our tablet strategy.
"We're coming round the corner now."
Another piece of the strategy is the HanZpad Alliance he set up last month in Beijing, which he chairs. It comprises about 20 companies from China and Taiwan that are manufacturers, component makers, marketers and distributors. Such a collaboration lets him leave the making, marketing and distribution of tablets to his partners.
Creative, he says, will focus on making the best ZMS chips.
"I can't be distracted by other projects. I will not have tablet production and business development issues to distract me. They will be handled by the Alliance members. I must be focused in order to succeed. This project is crucial to Creative's future."
He raised the curtain on part of the tablet's strategy in September last year, when he called a press conference at his Jurong office to unveil the ZMS chip and tablet reference designs.
It was his first press conference in Singapore in nearly seven years.
He said at the time: "The reference de sighs make it easy for any manufacturer to take advantage of the exploding tablet ma)."ket. But these companies don't have expertise in developing and producing tablets.
"This is where we come in. We have tested all the components that go inside a tablet, from chips to batteries and casing. From the menu of our tablet reference designs, they tick off and order what they need."
By February, he had consolidated his HanZpad Alliance initiative, and rolled out a more coherent tablet strategy.
This is how he sees it panning out: "If one company makes tens of thousands of HanZpads, it won't enjoy good prices from component makers. But if many small companies band together, they may make hundreds of thousands, and this will drive prices of electronic components down.
"Then they become more competitive and are in a better position to make the HanZpad more affordable to users."
Investors seem to like his strategy.
On Feb 15, when he announced the HanZpad Alliance in Beijing, Creative's share price leapt 71 per cent to close at $4.15, its highest since December 2010. Creative closed at $3.74 on April 5. Its all-time high was $64 on March 28, 2000.
Mr Bryan Ma of United States research company IDC has reservations about Mr Sim's grand plans. Creative's strategy is not new. Chip giant Intel, for example, has created reference designs for new product categories such as small-sized under-$I,OOO computers called netbooks, he says.
"The key thing is whether the Alliance members can make, market, sell and distribute HanZpads. Can they do what they say?" asks Mr Ma, who is IDC's associate vice-president, and leads the company's research in personal computing in the Asia-Pacific region.
He is more enthusiastic about Creative's focus on China, specifically its education market: "Most of the 5.8 million tablets sold last year were to consumers. This year, we forecast consumers will snap up 7.2 million tablets. So Creative's focus on the commercial market, which includes the Chinese education market, is good because there is less competition there."
But he cautions that leadership changes expected in China over the next few months could have an impact on where government budgets are spent.
In the years when Mr Sim all but became a recluse, most of the media activities were handled by Mr Craig McHugh, then the president of Creative's US subsidiary. Mr McHugh left the company last year.
The 31-year-old company, which has about 3,000 employees, has continued to expand its range of personal digital entertainment products such as portable and wireless speakers and MP3 players. It continues to develop the Sound Blaster processors, which are used in computers and game consoles such as the PS3.
Mr Sim's priority now is the HanZpad's scheduled debut late flex-t month. Creative itself is manufacturing the first few thousand units, to demonstrate to its Alliance members that the tablet will work according to its specifications.
The first run of HanZpads will be the only ones that will carry the Creative brand name. Mr Sim would not be drawn on the precise numbers.
Creative will give samples to Alliance members, as well as to schools in China taking part in a Creative-led pilot project on e-Iearning with tablets.
To help publishers translate physical books to e-copies, he says, he has developed a technology that can handle the conversion of one book a week, and for one-tenth of what it would usually cost a publisher to get it done himself.
His personal fascination with Chinese started when his older sister Siew Bee, a Chinese language teacher, made him practise writing in Chinese.
"As my brothers and I practised, we also learnt more words. By the time I was 12, I had a vocabulary of 2,000 words, which was very good for my age group.
"In secondary school, I topped my class in Chinese every year although I was educated in English. By the time I left, I could attend.the late playwright's Kuo Pao Kun's lectures on Chinese literature. I could even take notes in Chinese," he recalls.
His personal passion, though, is the Chinese handwriting recognition software that comes with the HanZpad. He had his engineers tweak the software until it could accurately respond to different styles of writing.
Schoolchildren write in different styles, he explains. Some write Chinese characters in a flowing cursive-like style. Whatever the style, the software must be able to recognise the characters from the Chinese character database that comes with each HanZpad.
"Accuracy is very important because school kids will be practising their Chinese handwriting on the HanZpad," says Mr, Sim, who has submitted a patent for this feature.
Throughout the interview, he emphasises that he is not concerned about competing with Apple, which already has about 70 per cent of the Chinese tablet market.
The HanZpad, he says, has a more noble strategy.
"I'm not out to make the next million dollars. My needs are simple. The HanZpad is a way of saving the planet and saving trees while making education available to all Chinese school kids, even in the most remote areas of the country.
"My dream is that every single Chinese student will be able to use a HanZpad for his education."
via Straits Times
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