Asus Chairman Jonney Shih: 'We do far more with plastic'

The Taiwanese company's leader talks design and how Asus has been trying a new approach with its latest portfolio of products.

The face of Asus: Chairman Jonney Shih. Aloysius Low/CNET

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Striding confidently onto the stage at the company's ZenFone launch this week was Asus Chairman Jonney Shih.

Well known for being the face of the company, it was Shih, not Jerry Shen, the current CEO of Asus, who announced the new Android-powered smartphones to the media.

As Shih spoke for an hour or so onstage, introducing slide after slide, you could tell the Asus chairman was enjoying his time there. He spoke excitedly, gesturing grandly with his arms to make a point and flashing his impish grin as he shared with the audience the ZenFone's feature set. His demeanor was confident, as he pointed out with glee how the new PixelMaster camera feature easily beats his competitor's flagship models such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 .

With "incredible" and "innovation" as his buzzwords, his voice rose to a fevered pitch as he announced the price of the ZenFone range for Indonesia, prompting cheers from the Indonesian press -- the ZenFone 4 will retail for just $95.

As I sat down with him a few hours later for an interview, despite having already done countless others before (he couldn't recall how many), the Asus chairman was still buzzing with energy and eager to chat about the design aspects of the ZenFones as well his personal take on the creative thought process.

"When we consider using plastic in our phones -- unlike Samsung who gets criticized for their designs -- I think we do far more with plastic. We make full use of the plastic, factoring in the cost and how to get the best ergonomics, but there's still a lot of problems to be solved, such as reducing the thickness and how to make plastic beautiful," he said.

"We make full use of the plastic, factoring in the cost and how to get the best ergonomics, but there's still a lot of problems to be solved."

The ZenFone 5, in particular, sports a removable back cover with laser-drilled speaker holes, as well as a soft-touch that's reminiscent of the HTC One X . It feels remarkably good to hold and doesn't feel plasticky despite it being a midrange handset.

Shih said that creating new handsets isn't just having the right inspiration -- there has to be lots of hard work and tons of prototyping to get these non-flagship smartphones just right. He mentions the 10,000-hour rule from a book called "Outliers" that claims success in any field is a matter of practicing for that said amount of time.

"We found out that this is true. It's not just inspiration that gives us the breakthrough," he said.

The Taiwanese company has come far since its early motherboard manufacturing days. While those components and its PC business still remain a viable part of its lineup, the company has undergone a transformation to a design-centric culture which began with the EeePC range of Netbooks -- the mini-laptops that reigned for the better part of 2008 to 2009.

"It's not just inspiration that gives us the breakthrough."

"Starting from the EeePc, we had an internal transformation and we believe it's no longer about the technical specs any more. Sometimes it's a very tough process as it's very hard to change the mindset of the engineers," he said.

Founded in 1989 by four former Acer computer engineers and originally named Pegasus, the company dropped the first three letters in order to rank higher in alphabetical listings. Shih joined the company in 1993 as chairman and served a dual role as CEO and chairman up till 2008.

The spry 62-year-old executive remains the face of the company and is quite the master showman. Shih is well known for including magic tricks in his presentations, or showing up with unannounced products at events for a surprise show-and-tell session.

Jonney Shih (left) is joined onstage by Asus CEO Jerry Shen to show off the new Intel-powered ZenFone smartphones. Aloysius Low/CNET

Having graduated from National Taiwan University many years back with a degree in electrical engineering, Shih's still very much in touch with technology advances. He claims to may have been the only CEO to get an invite to visit Intel's labs as opposed to just going for business meetings with the chip giant.

"Intel has the accumulated CPU expertise, and they have the processor technology advantage -- even TSMC is one generation behind. Every new generation means you can have different level of better performance," he said.

"Many people have a misunderstanding about Intel [in the smartphone market], but because of the trust we have with them, we think it's a good partnership. In the end, the user will judge the performance that's delivered. Intel is still a newcomer to the smartphone market, and they are willing to work with us and help us to drive the business."

Of course, Shih isn't ruling out using other platforms despite his obvious praise of Intel. Previous Asus devices such as the Google Nexus 7 and the PadFone have been powered by quad-core platforms, such as Nvidia's Tegra and Qualcomm's Snapdragon.

This is not the first time that the company has focused on smartphones. A previous partnership with GPS device maker Garmin ended in late 2010 when Garmin decided to exit the handset business.

This time around, Asus is hoping to take advantage of the emerging markets where it has strong foundations. It's the first time in a long while that Asus has hosted a product announcement in Jakarta, and the company is hoping that the emerging markets here in Southeast Asia will favor a well-made product at an affordable price.

In Indonesia, where social media platforms such as Twitter is used by almost everyone, Asus is hoping to tap on non-traditional marketing tactics. Shih admits that this is something the company can do better.

"For Asus, our weakness before is that we're normally too conservative in terms of marketing, and while I think it's a good thing today, the trend is going towards digital marketing and word of mouth is more important. The consumer is now very different," he said.

"When you have the two-way communication approach, it will affect your marketing and sales. The customer relationship is very important. We need to make our marketing more game-like, as well as make the messaging more visual and structured."

"We need to make our marketing more game-like, as well as make the messaging more visual and structured."