“We would have loved a product like this to have come along a long time ago”: How the Superbook is trying to modernise the laptop
Last week, we saw the kind of Kickstarter breakthrough that really captures the imagination. The Superbook promises to change the way we think about laptops, with a shell providing a keyboard, trackpad, battery and screen and allowing your phone to do all the heavy lifting. After all, if you replace your phone every two years, the chances are it’s a better performer than your dusty old laptop, right?
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of people who will go out of their way to tell you your product isn’t needed, so we’ve had to answer a lot of these questions already”
I thought it was brilliant and so – presumably – did the 8,700 backers who have currently pledged $1.4 million to a campaign that was only seeking $50,000. Our editorial director, Ian Betteridge, was less sure. So we debated it on Alphr later in the week. It only seems right that we gave Superbook a chance to counter Ian’s misgivings, so I chatted to founder Andrew Jiang over Skype about Superbook, Kickstarter and why Ian is wrong to be so gloomy.
To an extent, Jiang is very familiar with the limitations of the project. “We’ve been doing a little bit of advertising on Facebook, and you wouldn’t believe the amount of people who will go out of their way to tell you your product isn’t needed, so we’ve had to answer a lot of these questions already,” he laughs.
“The major criticism that we get is that ‘laptops are already pretty cheap and pretty much available, so why would you want something which doesn’t have the full capabilities?’ In a lot of ways, that argument is totally fair, but it kind of misses the point,” he says. This comes down to two main things: first, that laptops these days are using the same kind of processors (or worse) than our smartphones, and second that having everything in one ecosystem unlocks lots of possibilities. “Everything from not having to copy and paste, and sync and move files around, to coming up with applications that take different forms without you having to buy separate computer devices.”
This, as Ian was keen to point out, is a problem blunted by the rise of the cloud, but Jiang doesn’t believe it’s been entirely destroyed. “It’s probably true for the developed world,” he concedes, but points out that elsewhere data is unaffordable, unreliable or both. Even in the developed world, though, he believes there’s a place for the Superbook. “Personally, the thing I find the most useful is the form factor. Even if the data connection is there, having something convenient as a form factor for typing really long things or graphic design… much as I try with Terminal apps on my phone, I haven’t been able to do anything remotely close to programming work on my phone.”
“I haven’t been able to do anything remotely close to programming work on my phone”
“Windows did a really good job with Continuum, but the problem there is no-one uses Windows Mobile – or a very small percentage of the population – and for us, being able to build something for Android is really important.”
That was Ian’s second issue with the Superbook: historically, big-screen Android has been – to put it charitably – not a great experience. Jiang agrees but believes the Andromium team may have landed in the right place at the right time, as Google seem to be finally taking big screens seriously. “If you look at the beta for Android N, they’ve built in the ability to do resizing; they’ve brought in keyboard support; they’ve brought in mouse support. As Android adds this, it becomes easier for us to focus on the software library that enables the transition. All the other stuff we have to build in right now, which slows down performance, but as they add in these things, I think it’s going to become easier.”
“For us, quite frankly, we would love for other people to build the hardware, we’d much rather just work on the software”
The more I hear Jiang talk, despite his obvious enthusiasm for the project, I can’t help but feel he’d rather somebody else had come up with this solution already. “Totally! We would have loved a product like this to have come along a long time ago. For us, quite frankly, we would love for other people to build the hardware, we’d much rather just work on the software. It would be a lot easier that way.”
One of the difficulties that comes from a Kickstarter campaign – even if it is a massively overachieving one – is that you don’t get the mass-production benefits that big companies such as HP, Acer and Asus do. “Right now, even if we get to double what we’ve raised so far, we’re going to make maybe 15,000 of these devices. For most laptop manufacturers, 15,000 units is nothing, so the scale benefits you get going from 5,000 to 15,000 is pretty minimal – maybe a couple of dollars. It limits what we can do in terms of stretch goals,” explains Jiang. “But on the positive side, our risk of manufacturing is a lot lower.” That’s the benefit of it being a laptop shell rather than a fully fledged laptop: in terms of unique circuitry, there isn’t much there.
“Now it’s doing well though, people are reaching out to us to ask for advice, and I have to tell them, ‘uh, we didn’t do well last time…’”
Nonetheless, a Kickstarter campaign wouldn’t be a Kickstarter without stretch goals, and the Superbook has a number. The campaign has already knocked down international keyboard decals, an extra USB port, a bigger battery and a 1080p screen upgrade. Next up is a free Superbook sleeve with space for handsets (around $100,000 away), but if they hit $2 million, buyers will be able to upgrade to backlit keys – something it turns out is a mildly contentious point. “Before we made the announcement, everyone seemed to love [backlit keys],” Jiang chuckles, “but now I have to deal with the small vocal minority that doesn’t like the option.”
Stretch goals are an interesting one for something like Superbook, given that its appeal is based on simplicity. “I think we can’t add too many stretch goals in terms of changing the actual device itself, because it’s going to make everything a lot more complex and add unnecessary risk to delivery,” Jiang explains. “We can definitely make a premium version of this, but we want an affordable version so everyone can try the idea for themselves before we make a really fancy version.”
This may make them sound like wizened old Kickstarter experts, but actually their first outing – the Andromium desktop software – ended in failure, around $30,000 short according to Jiang. “We’re the first people to admit that we’re not crowdfunding experts. Now it’s doing well, though, people are reaching out to us to ask for advice, and I have to tell them, ‘uh, we didn’t do well last time…’”
That’s clearly not the case now, but in some ways the fundraising is the easy part. Ensuring the backers are pleased with what they get is the next vital step, but Jiang is obviously confident in a project that he and his team dearly wish already existed. “A lot of people have seen projects like ours rise up and a lot of them fail. We loved the Motorola Atrix, but it had a lot of major flaws, and a lot of those are things we intend to fix.”
“More and more people are growing up in the mobile-first generation. We have an opportunity to really redesign what you expect from a mobile connected to a laptop. That’s always going to be a challenge, but also part of the fun.”