MOBILE TECHNOLOGY
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The Next Big Thing

Former Google engineers' Android device to rival Windows Surface for professional tablet market

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 April, 2015, 1:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 April, 2015, 5:36pm

For former Google software engineer Jeremy Zhou, the idea began when his father handed back a Windows 8 laptop the younger Zhou had given him.

“I thought he’d be fine using it because he had been using Windows for many years, but after two days he gave it back to me, saying he couldn’t use it,” the 38-year-old Zhou said in a recent interview.

The result was Beijing-based Jide Technology, co-founded by Zhou and two other former Google engineers with US$4 million of their own money.

It has developed a modified version of Android 4.4.2 KitKat that brings the look and feel of the Windows desktop operating system to Android and allows a tablet to be used like a laptop, running multiple apps in small windows.

Having attracted the backing of Taiwan’s Foxconn, the world’s biggest contract electronics maker, the start-up has begun producing its own tablet, the Remix Ultra Tablet.

The device uses the new OS, comes with a keyboard and offers, the company says, the same productivity as a laptop.

“We keep asking ourselves: why are people still using laptops? We think 95 per cent of people still use them for three things only, namely the browser, email, and office software,” Zhou said.

The OS, which Jide is offering to other makers for free, and the tablet put the company head-to-head with Microsoft’s Surface device, and reviewers have been quick to point out the similarities with the Surface, except in processing power.

Mobile tech website Liliputing said in a review of the Remix Ultra the device was “intriguing”, but noted that it was still an Android tablet, so any software used would be the Android version.

Zhou however sees the future in Android.

“People don’t actually care about the operating system. They use Windows because it lets them access other apps, not because it is Windows. We’re gambling on the fact that many years from now, most of the new apps will be on Android or iOS."

The tablet has an 11.6 inch, 1920 X 1080 screen and a 1.8 GHz Nvidia Tegra 4 chip. It has 2GB of RAM, either 16GB or 64GB of storage, a pair of 5 megapixel front/rear cameras and dual-band Wi-Fi (a/b/g/n).

Weighing 860 grams, it comes with a magnetic keyboard and a stand that can be positioned at either 40 or 80 degrees. The tablet is on sale in China at prices from 2,288 yuan (US$370) and will be available in the US later this year for an estimated price of US$399.

Jide is the latest venture for China-born Zhou, who was educated in Hong Kong. He was Google’s 103rd employee, but quit the company in 2008 and plunged into angel investing in China. Most of the companies he has invested in failed, he said, though one, an international online retail company called LightInTheBox, went public in 2013.

In mid-2013, Zhou and former Google colleagues Ben Luk and David Ko, formed Jide. Luk, 36, had run the Google Maps operation in the Asia-Pacific region and had been working for Google in the US for 10 years. The decision to leave Google wasn’t hard for him. 

“I decided I had to do something I was truly passionate about when I was still young,” Luk said.

Ko, 37 and born in Hong Kong, had worked at Google in Shanghai as a software engineer.

Their venture caught the attention of Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Foxconn, best known as the main manufacturer of Apple products and which also runs an incubator programme for start-ups. 

 “We convinced him by showing that we were determined in the field. We weren’t just random guys hoping to join a trend, but we quit our full-time jobs at Google and put our own money into it at the beginning,” Zhou said.

The company has recently completed a funding round, bringing in US$16 million from investors including Foxconn and has raised an additional US$200,000 on crowdfunding website Kickstarter in a project that began on March 26 and would end this week.

The Taiwanese company manufactured their prototype for free, and gave them advice on hardware design, Zhou said.

“Manufacturers work with a lot of partners and they can see what’s coming in the industry. They could see that this was something that might work, and we gambled on it and it looked like it might be the future,” Zhou said.