For Fusion Garage, the second time's the charm

TabCo is Fusion Garage, and the Grid 10 tablet (and Grid 4 smartphone) aim to enter a market where Apple has dominated and Google has failed. Can it succeed? We talk to founder Chandra Rathakrishnan.

Back in July, we received at ZDNet HQ the oddest thing we've ever received in the mail: a pizza PR pitch, from a company named "TabCo."

In the weeks that ensued, the company was outed as Fusion Garage, maker of the ill-fated JooJoo tablet, formerly known as the CrunchPad and always known as the lawsuit-heard-'round-the-Valley.

Yesterday, I met with company founder Chandra Rathakrishnan. It had been two years since our last face-to-face meeting. He came armed with a new device -- the Grid 10 tablet -- and a companion smartphone, the Grid 4.

You can imagine my surprise. As recent as CES 2011, his company was still promoting the JooJoo tablet, which I reviewed as "potential failure" but, in those pre-Apple iPad days, mostly a mystery.

You know what happened next. Apple introduced the iPad, convinced the world it needed another computing device and watched as millions flew off the sales floors. Then it introduced a second model: wash, rinse, repeat.

Along the way, Google attempted to return the volley, through the Android-based Samsung Galaxy Tab and Motorola Xoom devices. And more recently, HP, fresh from its acquisition of Palm, ponied up the webOS-based TouchPad. But for one reason or another -- half-baked, half-marketed, half-hype -- they have utterly failed to capture the consumer's imagination.

Somehow, Apple convinced millions of consumers that the iPad was an exciting new device while Android models were more been-there, done-that.

The fight for No. 2

One of the things that Rathakrishnan suggested during our talk was that he doesn't want Fusion Garage to compete with Apple -- he wants it to fight for that elusive No. 2 slot. Of course, the players loom large in the space -- Samsung is a massive global consumer electronics manufacturer; Motorola was just acquired by Google itself; HP is a major computer manufacturer that has yet to gain footing in mobile -- and Fusion Garage remains an upstart. A David to many Goliaths, as the cliché goes. But the funny thing is that all this time, the Goliaths have been too distracted to assert their dominance.

That means the playing field is vastly different for Fusion Garage the second-time around. The market segment is defined, the players have revealed their cards and the tough job of convincing a consumer that a tablet is worth it has been done by Apple. Fusion Garage seems confident. Rathakrishnan seems confident.

This time, his company is armed with Silicon Valley investors, a better PR team (responsible for all the smoke and mirrors that have perplexed tech reporters this last month) and deeper pockets. And it shows: the first time I met Chandra, it was in a smallish hotel in Manhattan's hip SoHo neighborhood; this time, it was at the epitome of luxury: the Mandarin Oriental, way uptown and overlooking Central Park.

The devices

At this point you're probably wondering, well, how did those products work? Rather well, in my estimation, though there are a few kinks still needing some attention. The tablet device itself is attractive, a glossy black affair that's flat on the top side and curved along the back. The operating system is all-new, built on the Android kernel.

The interface is far, far better than the previous product from this company -- it's engaging and interesting to the eye. Though it could use a bit more refinement -- many of the fonts and menus were heavy-handed, overly designed and detracting, rather than enhancing, the experience of the content you seek to consume -- it was at least as compelling as anything else on the market.

But one topic that came up during our discussion is, "Does it work?" Because you can put the fastest chip inside it or the most memory or even the prettiest interface but if it doesn't get out of the way of the user and reduce the amount of steps it takes to complete an intended task, it is a failure.

The easy comparison here is the smartphone world. Apple clearly set the bar with its iOS (née iPhone) operating system and Google, for all its good intentions, managed to copy quite a bit of it. Apple likes to think that its operating system is superior in every way, and that's probably true, especially at the onset. But it doesn't matter if the product is enough for a consumer, and much to Apple's horror, Google managed to rapidly eclipse the iPhone's success with Android. Why? Because Android, while far from perfect, was good enough for consumers. To Google, Apple can go be perfect in its little corner; Google just wants market share.

That obviously didn't happen in the tablet space. When I took home the Motorola Xoom before it was launched, I wanted to throw it against a wall for the most mundane of reasons: I couldn't figure out how to close an open window or application. I tried everything -- even paged through the manual -- to no avail. Bewildered, I gave the device to my wife to try out, without telling her a thing. She came back within 10 minutes with the exact same complaint.

The Xoom interface is far more mature than that of the Grid 10, but it missed on a crucial element: don't change things too much. Since the early days of computing, we've been used to a little "X" to close a window. It's hard to move on from that, and while I understand the desire to, Google left us wanting 10 minutes after obtaining an $800 device.

Fusion Garage's Grid 10 keeps the little "X" but makes different kinds of interface concessions: open browser windows spin around a little wheel in the bottom left corner for selection; the home screen isn't defined by "pages" as most of us are used to on other mobile devices but an open-ended workspace you can "peer" around in. (There's a little map that tells you where you are on the "desktop.") Rathakrishnan told me he's trying desperately to differentiate his product in the marketplace so as not to show consumers that the Grid 10 is a "me-too" tablet; the question is whether he's chosen the right mix of innovation and convention.

(If nothing else, at least Rathakrishnan has proof to back his desires up: he developed the JooJoo before the iPad existed on the market. In this regard, he's been anything but "me-too.")

The retail question

But as I asked him pointedly during our talk, "OK, let's say it's good enough or even great. How will you get this in the hands of consumers?"

This is a crucial part of the plan. The first JooJoo was sold directly through the web; riding in the wake of a terrible lawsuit, I can't imagine that the company sold any more in total than Apple sells iPads in five minutes.

But tablets need to be coddled, felt, played with. And so Rathakrishnan tells me that his company is coming to (global) market in a more judicious way, selling the product through and seeking brick-and-mortar retail (and wireless carrier!) partners to boot.

With new investors in tow, Rathakrishnan seems convinced that he's got the wherewithal to actually make a splash in the market, and he might just be right. After all, he's got a relatively polished product with a companion smartphone, investor backing, and a much-improved, multifaceted business plan. But most importantly, he's got a market opportunity: no manufacturer has asserted itself in that No. 2 spot behind Apple, and that's his big chance.

Selling the company, not the product

Much of Fusion Garage's success in regrouping has been to sell the company, not the product. While I met Rathakrishnan so that he would demonstrate his new toys to me, it's clear from the PR trickery that interest in a viable tablet company is far better than interest in a one-off product, even if it's good.

By that measure you could argue that he should have kept the TabCo name. Snappy, two syllables shorter and graduated from the "experimental lab" vibe his real moniker gives off, true as it may be.

One thing I asked Rathakrishnan is why he's intent on going the retail route again, rather than just selling out to a bigger company with the pockets, sales channels and marketing prowess to make it happen. While he said he's open to entertaining such offers, he believes the lack of success for iPad competitor devices -- especially overseas, where the iPad itself is less of a cultural touchpoint -- gives him a viable shot.

The question is whether he's learning enough from failing rivals to succeed. We got into a heated discussion about HP's TouchPad, a late entry to the early tablet market that, in my opinion, is more compelling (and less of a direct copycat) to the iPad. Since it first arrived, I've believed webOS was a winner, and just didn't get the boost it needed to cash on in that promise. But HP's device has sputtered. Rathakrishnan said it's because it was another "me-too" device. I asked him: how can you convince consumers that the Grid 10 isn't?

His response was all the interesting interface details -- different enough that he built his OS from the ground up, not just skinning Android -- but I don't believe that's enough.

The bottom line

Is the Grid 10 worth buying? It's impossible to say having spent such little time with the device. I've asked Rathakrishnan to send ZDNet a review unit when they're available, and at that time we'll suss out whether it can please the enterprise -- VPN, Exchange support, document/spreadsheet/presentation compatibility -- as well as the consumer, via movies, e-mail, apps and more.

It's a steep, steep challenge. The tablet game is increasingly a mobile ecosystem game, favoring those who have built infrastructures that can be extended to whatever device is appropriate. (e.g. the Apples, Googles, Microsofts of the world.) While the Grid 10 relies on Amazon's store as a content ecosystem, even that's not enough to keep up with Apple or even Google.

But it's still early. Content providers haven't yet offered dedicated tablet apps in these stores because the tide can shift at any time and there aren't enough developers to go around. That gives Rathakrishnan a shot. How big of one, I don't know.

But if Fusion Garage can latch on to a big company -- maybe Amazon is it, though I wager they'd make their own tablet first -- they could get out in front. But the door is closing fast.


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