CES 2017: We talk the future of the personal computer, gaming communities, and the creation of the Lenovo Legion gaming brand.

Lenovo has been doubling down on its gaming PC market for much of the last year, but it’s been doing a pretty quiet job of it. Nonetheless, in terms of market share (and some interesting numbers based on GTX-enabled platforms), Lenovo’s claiming the second spot in the competitive gaming PC market.

At CES this year, the company has continued to focus on this segment, by announcing the new Lenovo Legion gaming brand, alongside two new core gaming laptops. We caught up with one of Lenovo’s head PC guys, Dilip Bhatia, to talk about the start of the market, and what Legion can bring to the table.

What is Lenovo’s take on the current state of the PC?
The overall market is flat to slightly negative, but there are pockets of areas that we’re very bullish about. The areas that are growing, and that we’re excited about: gaming is a big growth area for us; anything that’s ultraportable, or ultrabook class products, they’re doing very well; detachables, and convertibles, is another growth area; and the whole smart home areas, there’s a lot of growth in those areas.

And you’ve just launched the new Smart Assistant here at CES – is that the start of a new rename of smart home products?
Yeah, it is the start of a journey. We’ve launched two devices – the Lenovo Smart Assistant, and Lenovo Smart Storage. In North America we’re partnering with Amazon, with its Alexa software. So just like you’re using Alexa now, you can use it as a smart assistant.

Will that work in other regions, or does Alexa lock it down to North America only?
Initially, it’ll be North America. And obviously in China, we’re going to launch it also; we’re working with a local provider over there too, to bring that technology to China.

Does global segmentation like that represent a challenge? How would you bring the Smart Assistant to Australia, for instance?
We’re actually talking to a number of Australian retailers, and talking to customers in Australia, so we know there’s a demand for that. But we’ll go and partner with the right provider, whether it’s Microsoft or Google or Amazon, to bring that technology to Australia.

Getting back to the importance of gaming for Lenovo, you’ve obviously had gaming products before now, and it is a crowded market – so why go with the new Legion brand now?
So. When we talk to customers the feedback we’ve been getting is… obviously we’re doing very well, we’re number two in the market…

Which I have to admit I did not know!
Yeah, we are number two; but wInterview: Lenovo’s VP of Global Marketing, Lenovo PC & Smart Device Business Group, Dilip Bhatiahen we talk to retailers and customers, they are like “Hey, would be nice if you had a dedicated sub brand,” while up to today it’s just been the Y-series – so it’s not a big deal really, honestly. But we wanted to provide credibility that we’re serious about this market, so we said “let’s go give it a sub-brand,” and up today they’ve all been under the general consumer brand – so IdeaPad, IdeaCenter – and the feedback from some of the retailers was, well, that customers get confused. They come in for gaming, but then they think they’re buying a general-purpose consumer device – or am I buying a gaming device?

So based on that feedback, from our retailers and customers, we said “Let’s go provide some legitimacy to the gaming area. And we really wanted to focus on this community of gamers – that’s why we called it Legion, it’s a community of many gamers. We really want to work with them closely, and design products based on their feedback, to find out what’s most important to them.

A lot of your competitors have already in the last few months released laptops based on Nvidia’s latest 10-series cards, with everything from dual GTX 1080 monsters down to more reasonable single card GTX 1060 designs – but today you’re just launching a GTX 1050 Ti and a GTX 1060 model. What’s the thinking behind that?
Again, it’s the start of a journey. You’ll see us definitely a lot more focused, going forward; we’re going to have a lot more offerings. It’s not just only these two – you’ll see a lot of innovations and cool technology down the road from us. 

But, again, it’s the start of a journey for us. We know these are the two sweet spots today for us. With the (more powerful) Y720, we feel it’s the right target offering for a particular customer. Same for the Y520 – it’s again for more mainstream gamers. But, again – we’re not done.

I know that Lenovo’s now getting into the VR headset market, and you’re marketing some of your machines as VR-ready – but it feels like every year is, as JenHsen Huang put it yesterday, the year that VR arrives. So is this the year that it really happens?
When you’ve got industry heavyweights like Microsoft saying “Hey, we’re going to make this dream happen” and come out with $299, $399 devices… It’s gonna happen.

You’re going to see a lot more devices in this category. If you can make it an affordable enough pricepoint, if you can make VR available for a notebook, potentially with integrated graphics, so you don’t have to have discrete graphics, it will become mainstream. There’s a tremendous amount of interest – we know people are craving more immersive experiences, and I think this will the year. 

Maybe not early this year, but this will be the year.

Do you think we’ll ge to the point where you can buy an all-in-one VR solution – say, a laptop bundled with VR headset and everything else you need?

Well… maybe absolutely is too strong a word. But I think it’s in the interests of OEMs and retailers to provide total solutions – a one-stop shop. You’ve seen what Project Alloy, from Intel, is talking about – it’s all-in-one, everything you need is in there (the HMD), right, and you’re not tethered, and to me that’s awesome. If we can go and bring that to market, whether it’s holidays this year… To me , I think it’s up to the retailers and OEMs to provide that experience, where everything’s there. The VFR camera capture, the notebook’s at an affordable price-point, and the VR mounted headsets, all in one package.

You’ll see that.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the Cube gaming desktop – I’m pretty sure that’s not a CES launch, but it’s been very quiet in Australia.
It was launched at IEFA, in September, and it is in Harvey Norman [at which point, the friendly PR running shotgun pointed out it was, to begin with, a Harvey Norman exclusive, though it seems more widely available now].

But it’s based around a simple insight – 66 per cent, roughly, of gamers like to game with others. So, we saw this trend, where there are these LAN parties [well-spotted, Lenovo], gaming parties, where people will come into each others’ houses, and bring all these devices – and they’re all powerful machines, with the latest and graphics ability. And that lead to the Cube – a much more mobile desktop PC.

So Lenovo’s really working on that community engagement, and making sure it delivers.
Yeah! The another insight – half of half gamers purchase their own audio accessories, so, again, we feel that audio is very important to gamers. Which is why we created the world’s first Dolby Atmos laptop PC (the Legion Y720), so if games are optimised for Dolby Atmos, it’s a truly immersive experience. Have you listened to our demo?

Yes, I have – and it’s pretty amazing! 
Exactly! So, again, that’s just one of the simple insights from our gamers.

So now the developers need to follow that with Dolby Atmos enabled games.
Absolutely. But if customers are asking for it, it’ll happen.

Our time’s nearly up, so… can you given me an idea on where you see the PC market heading over the next… 18 months? Gaze into the crystal ball for me.
The PC market… God, if I could do that I’d be rich! 

But what I can tell you is that the PC market is still in its infancy, right? Look at the car market –  the car market’s been very mature for a very long time. And if you look at the PC market, it’s still very young – and there is no one-size-fits-al solution. So if people are expecting one desktop, one notebook… that’s not going to be the case. What you’re seeing is is this innovation come through, as technology gets better, now you have convertibles, you have detachables, you have… Look at the car industry and how prolific it is. You have convertibles, you have mini-vans, sports cars, sedans… you have all sorts of stuff.

The PC market is basically catering to different sets of needs, different customers, and the innovation’s going to continue from the start. 

It’s no longer about the PC – it’s about personal computing.

Good tag-line – I like that. Thanks a lot for your time, Dilip.

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