INTERVIEW: Fusion Garage CEO Chandra Rathakrishnan on the Grid10 tablet

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review-line.JPGOnce bitten, twice shy; it’s a saying that could easily be levelled at Fusion Garage. CEO Chandra Rathakrishnan promised the world with the JooJoo tablet, billed as the first true iPad competitor, but sadly only managed to deliver a mediocre slate experience.

They’ve taken a year out and now they’ve returned with a brand new tablet and a brand new OS to put in it. The Grid10 tablet and GridOS, alongside the Grid4 smartphone, are Fusion Garage’s next big hope. We caught up with Chandra Rathakrishnan to see what to expect from their new tablet goodies, and how he feels the tablet market has changed since their first attempt at breaking into the market.

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In what areas do you feel the JooJoo tablet succeeded, and where did it fall down?

With joojoo, we took a web app centric approach, and quickly learned that users wanted webs apps and productivity apps that expand the usability of a device. joojoo was a category creating device and was introduced as the first internet tablet, and at that time we were only a 14 person team. It is no secret that we launched joojoo prematurely and the device wasn’t stable. I learned a lot of lessons over the past year from joojoo with the biggest one being you can say whatever you want but you better have a good product to back up your words. I believe we have that product now. We have learned from our mistakes, building out our company and developing the new Grid products.

Would you call the Grid10 a successor to the JooJoo? Where if anywhere would say the two tablets share DNA?

Grid10 is an entirely new product, and is different from joojoo in many ways. The only thing that links joojoo and Grid10 is that they were uniquely designed to introduce a new OS to the market. With Grid10, we built on the Android Kernel built from the ground up, with many additional features that the joojoo did not have in line at the time of launch.

Though built on the Android Kernal, the Grid OS more or less is a brand new proprietar operating system and UI. Why take that route over, say, regular Android or Honeycomb?

We believe that there is simply too much sameness in the Android market and that the last thing anybody needed was another re-skinned Android product. True innovation begins at the heart of a product which, for us, is the OS. That is a core competency for us and we believe the differences with our Grid OS are readily apparent to anybody, regardless if you have used an Android product or not. We believe people deserved a true alternative to Android – while still being able to use Android apps via the Amazon market.

We created our own interface, interactions and own suite of software apps including email, video, music, notes, photos, and contacts amongst others. Additionally, Fusion Garage uses the Amazon Appstore for apps, Amazon Mp3 store for music, and the Kindle Store and Kindle app for books. Fusion Garage optimized the GridOS for the Grid10 hardware. Additionally, they built their own browser, which is a “chromeless” browser, as the chrome is invisible unless when called for by the user through the use of a gesture. This provides a full-screen browsing experience. The way we handle tabs and chrome controls are all different from existing Android tablets as well.
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Are there Android tablets that you think are getting things right? Where do you feel Android tablets are going wrong, too?

I think that the market is saturated with Android, and while they work just fine and get the job done, the majority aren’t worth buying over the iPad because there is no differentiation. Practically every major phone manufacturer has some variation of its own Android UI skin, and Barnes & Noble has taken the liberty of hiding most of the Android elements from the Nook Color. However the Fusion Garage use of Android is different. We used the kernel but made several changes to the stack above the kernel to create an entirely new user experience.

The Google and Motorola partnership: should other Android device manufacturers be worried?

If there is ever a time where one company has control over the OS and the hardware, there is cause for concern for anybody that does software development. That being said, I think that the thing that Android device manufacturers should really worry about is the sameness in the market. Without key differentiators in their products, nothing is drawing them apart from one another. That is why we choose to build a completely new OS and created a fork of Android, taking it in a different direction than that of other Android tablets.

HP’s TouchPad crashed and burned, despite a mostly positive reception for webOS. Does that worry you in regards to GridOS? Is there room for another tablet operating system?

It was surprising to us when we learned that HP bailed out and killed webOS as soon as they did. webOS did have good perception and high expectations, and the truth of the matter is that the HP hardware didn’t match up to the level of expectations that people had in the software. We like webOS and believe that it will find a home somewhere.

The fall of the TouchPad does not cause concern for us because when there is true innovation involved and not just a re-skinning, there is room for another OS. We believe that innovation begins at the heart of a product which, for us, is our OS. Our approach of building on top of an Android Kernel gave us the stability of an OS that people are familiar with, but allowed us to bring a new level of functionality, aesthetics and flair to the tablet market. It also allowed us to power a completely new type of user interface

The TouchPad sold well when its price was slashed. Is there a price/hardware sweetspot? Are tablets generally too expensive?

It is easy to sell product at firesale pricing, and we aren’t surprised that the TouchPad sold very well at the $99 price tag. In the tablet market, there needs to be aggressive pricing as it related to the caliber of product. At $299, we are able to deliver a new and innovative user experience at a price point that allows consumers to have true choice at a surprising price when considering a something on the high end like the iPad or something on the low end like the TouchPad.
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Has the TouchPad firesale influenced the Grid10’s relatively low selling price?

No, the TouchPad firesale had nothing to do with our low price. The fact is you just don’t see this level of innovation at £259, and we always wanted to bring it to market at this selling point. At this price, we are able to deliver a new and innovative user experience at a price point that allows consumers to have true choice when considering tablet.

What are you doing to attract app developers to the Grid10 specifically?

We have a developers relations plan, as Fusion Garage will launch its own app store – The Gridshop – this fall as developers begin to make applications available to the company. You can also expect an announcement from us very soon reaching out to the software developer community.

Are there plans for different sized Grid tablets?

We are constantly looking to innovate and expand. We have do have other devices in the pipeline for the future, but for now, we are focusing on the two current device sizes, Grid10 and Grid4.

Are we entering the end of the PC era?

We are entering a time of change and choice, but not the end of an era for PC’s. I think that there will always be a place for PC in some way or another. There are simply more options for people to choose the correct device, be it a desktop computer, a laptop or a tablet, to fit their lifestyle and need.

The JooJoo had Apple’s iPad in its sights? Who’s the Grid10’s main competitor?

iPad is not our competitor, we are simply providing an alternative to those who are seeking something different, and want an alternative to the sameness. We know that there are a sizeable number of people out there who want something new and we believe we have a great new product line that will appeal to many people.

In an ideal world, where do you see Fusion Garage and Grid in a years time?

Well, over the past year, we have certainly come a long way. We have been busy building out our company and developing the new products, and are now over 100 people as compared to the 14-person team we were when we launched joojoo. We now have multiple design centers – in Singapore, India and China – and have business relationships with major companies such as Amazon and Microsoft. In a year’s time, we hope to continue to grow in similar ways. We want to be a larger company that has many products serving a wide array of consumers, and hope to be recognized as a global brand that has made an impact on the tablet market.
review-line.JPG We’ll have a full review of the Fusion Garage Grid10 tablet in the coming weeks, so stay fixed on Tech Digest for more info soon.

Gerald Lynch

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