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Business

Asus wants a robot in every home

Asustek Computer Chairman Jonney Shih

Taiwan's Asustek Computer, known as Asus, envisions a robot in every home, at a time when the overall PC market is in decline and smartphones are also showing signs of maturing.

"Our ambition currently is to enable robotic computing for every household," Chairman Jonney Shih told participants.

"We went all-out to make this possible," Shih said.

Shih said he is personally supervising the project to produce the Asus Zenbo, a home service robot that is meant to be a companion for children and the elderly, with a price tag of $599. That is cheaper than Apple's iPhone 7, priced at $649, and SoftBank's humanoid robot Pepper, which sells for 198,000 yen ($1,857).

Asus decided to dispense with arms for Zenbo to cut costs as they are complex and require many components, according to Shih. He said the company is focusing more on facial expressions of the robot for better interaction with the user and to make the product more affordable.

Zenbo will be put on the market before Christmas this year, initially in Taiwan, Asus' home market, Shih said in an interview with The Nikkei and the Nikkei Asian Review. The Taiwanese PC maker unveiled the prototype at Computex 2016 in Taipei.

Until now, electronic devices, including PCs, smartphones and various connected devices, have all been "passive," but Asus believes computers will inevitably become "active," to interact with people and to better serve human needs, Shih said.

"We want to make Zenbo really open to all kinds of platforms and universal for both Apple and Google Android users," he said in the interview.

Asus's gambit to march into the nascent consumer robot field comes at a time when the global tech sector is casting about for a new growth driver in areas such as artificial intelligence and robotics.

Jonney Shih demonstrates the Asus Zenbo.

The efforts by Asus to enter the home robot field will still require a lot of hard work, noted Joey Yen, an analyst at research company IDC.

"For us, Zenbo at this point is not much more than a tablet plus wheels. What's more challenging is whether Zenbo can really create a new ecosystem and bring about various useful services looking forward," Yen said.

A promotional film showed Zenbo's capabilities, such as reminding its owner of engagements and daily itineraries, checking information online, reading stories, and alerting family members via phone calls during a medical emergency.

For Asus, the PC business accounted for around 60% of revenues of $472.3 billion New Taiwan dollars ($14.85 billion) for all of 2015.

Shih said his company still values its core business, but it is working to move toward selling more high-end computer products to beat Apple rather than engage in price cutting strategies to gain market share in the PC field.

"We target Apple when it comes to making new notebooks," said Shih, adding that he believes people still need to use PCs for professional work.

FIERCE COMPETITION Asus is currently ranked the world's No. 4 in the global PC market, shipping some 5.39 million units for the three months ending in September, ahead of Apple and trailing Lenovo, HP and Dell, according to research firm Gartner.

The move by Asus to transform itself into a smartphone maker in the last two years, however, encountered headwinds in 2016 due to fierce competition from Chinese device makers such as Oppo Electronics, Vivo, Xiaomi and Meizu Technology. For the first half of 2016, Asus sold only 7.7 million smartphones, even though the Taiwanese company managed to sell 20 million handsets for all of 2015, according to IDC.

"We think Asus is on a healthy track when it comes to the company's strategy to make more premium computers. Their efforts to move up the ladder may eventually pay off," said IDC's Yen.

"But its wrenching transformation to make a dent in the mobile sector will be very challenging, as Asus is actually a latecomer, with no previous relationships with overseas mobile operators in such a ferocious and crowded market space."

For the July-September period, Asus booked a 42.7% surge in net income of NT$6.11 billion from a year previously, although its revenue declined 1.2% to NT$117.8 billion.

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