On Being a PC Company in a Pandemic

Acer CEO Jason Chen talks about surviving in this unparalleled moment

Acer CEO Jason Chen hopped into view and sat down in front of me for our virtual interview. Maybe it was the Predator Shot energy drink he just consumed, but Chen didn’t appear the least bit drained from the live, global product rollout he concluded just minutes before on YouTube.

Acer CEO Jason Chen
 Lifewire / Ellen Lindner

Chen confirmed as much when he told me he was still a little amped up after unveiling a collection of:

  • Chromebooks
  • Ultra-slim Windows 10 laptops and convertibles
  • A new ruggedized line of portables
  • Gaming laptops and a desktop
  • A gaming screen
  • A gaming chair complete with back massager
  • And, yes, the energy drink

Moments later, a slightly more subdued Gregg Prendergast, Acer’s President of Pan-American Operations, appeared on the split screen. At one point, Chen jokingly chided him for not being invited to Prendergast group’s weekly virtual happy hours featuring Hawaiian and Latin American theme nights (apparently, participants wear costumes).

I was struck by the ease and composure of both men, Chen in Taipei, Prendergast in San Jose, CA, who run a global technology operation responsible for delivering roughly 6% of the world’s computers during an unprecedented pandemic.

How were they doing, surviving and moving forward? Their answers surprised me.

Jason Chen drinks an energy drink
Chen (right) downing that energy drink right before he spoke to me. Acer

The Two Faces of a Pandemic

While Prendergast's U.S.-based offices were essentially shut down (and remain so, with only a skeleton crew on site) during the pandemic, Chen’s Taipei-based Acer headquarters managed to stay open over the course of the global outbreak.

There have been, Chen told me, zero new infections over the last two weeks in Taiwan and Google outbreak data reports a total of 446 confirmed cases with just, while still tragic, seven deaths (worldwide there are over 9 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and an estimated 472,000 deaths).

“One of the reasons Taiwan can do so well,” said Chen, “is we have a very comprehensive CDC [Centers for Disease Control] control system.” One he explained that Acer helped develop.

Acer has a history of working with the Taiwan CDC to control disease outbreaks. Back in 2018, Taiwan’s CDC and Acer jointly launched an AI-based “Flu Forecasting Station."

For COVID-19, they created the "Taiwan Healthcare-Associated Infection and Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance System," which is essentially a set of real-time analysis and reports that healthcare professionals used to track and combat the spread of the disease.

And there was some other serendipity for Acer. Prendergast told me that his company had spent the last year upgrading its phone and communication systems, which helped prepare his 700-person team for working from home.

They’ve also learned, like many other companies around the world, that staying put isn’t always a bad thing. Prendergast said they now wonder if they’ll ever go back to taking a two-hour ride or a long flight for a one-hour meeting. Hopping on video conferencing is so much more efficient.

Gregg Prendergast
Gregg Prendergast, President of Acer's Pan America Operations. He's working from home like the rest of us. Acer

Breaking the Chain

Like many other tech companies, Acer relies on China for parts and Chen acknowledged that in January and February everything was shut down. However, Acer was prepared.

“We made some bets, decisions to bring more [supplies] in later last year and early January and were in a luckier position than other competitors. That’s how we were able to pick up market share in May,” said Prendergast.

The supply chain did quickly right itself in March, but the business has changed, and, for Acer, it’s been surprisingly good.

“There’s huge demand,” said Chen. “I’ve never seen this in my life.”

Prendergast concurred and both executives pointed to skyrocketing Chromebooks sales (the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security [CARES] Act funds may be driving many of those purchases among consumers and education). But they’re also seeing surges in notebooks, gaming screens (people stuck working from home are desperate for more screen real estate) and even, inexplicably, desktop sales.

Chen believes that sales of Chromebook are unlikely to subside since many students may not be returning to the classroom in the fall.

How people buy is also changing. Acer sales are normally heavier in the retail space (Best Buy, Target, Walmart) than from commercial and online retailers. “In the last 90 days, the online piece has been more than in store,” said Prendergast.

Acer is witnessing entire countries that once preferred shopping in store shifting to online. Canada, for example, generally preferred the in-store experience. Now they’re online buyers. Some countries like Mexico are still somewhat resistant, but Chen still sees them changing overtime.

“The pandemic totally accelerated the adoption of ecommerce... Online is here to stay,” he said.

Acer CEO Jason Chen
Acer CEO Jason Chen.  Acer

Clean Gadgets

While Acer’s product launch event made little direct mention of the pandemic, it did use the platform to unveil a new consumer product feature: Antimicrobial finishes that use silver ions to repel microbes. I asked Chen if this was a development spurred by the pandemic.

It turns out these material treatments aren’t new. Acer’s been using the antimicrobial finish on devices they sell to medical operations and hospitals. The big change is that the antimicrobial treatment is now part of a Windows 10 consumer laptop like the new Acer Swift 5.

'Pick between a $100 bill and your life. It’s an easy choice, right?'

The antimicrobial treatment treatment covers all surfaces. Prendergast expects the feature to become a check box item for more of their products

Adding microbe-rejecting technology to an Acer laptop adds about $100 to the price tag. “Pick between a $100 bill and your life. It’s an easy choice, right?” said Chen.

However, when I asked if the antimicrobial technology has been proven to reject the coronavirus, he admitted, “We do not have that medical proof at the moment,” adding that they don’t have coronavirus to test against. I told Chen that’s probably a good thing.

Acer is looking to expand in one more tech-health-related category. It currently sells in Taiwan small UV-light boxes for quickly disinfecting your keys, wallet and phone and is now thinking about bringing those products to the U.S.

So what

Acer is, despite the odds, riding high at this moment. Executives say they have more demand than they can meet and, when I asked about how hard they’re pushing on having the best front-facing cameras for our exploding video conferencing culture, Chen said their main concern is having adequate supplies of the necessary DSPs (digital signal processors) just to build all the cameras in their new laptops.

What, I wondered, did Chen think a second wave of the virus would mean? He told me that we’ve been under these conditions for a while already and, even though we’re close to people reemerging and flying to other countries again, he understands that a second wave would mean “We would have to go back to where we were before.”

Chen, though, didn’t sound afraid, just determined. “Tech- and product-wise, we continue to make sure we innovate new products, new technologies that will be offered to customers in this evolving lifestyle change. We want to power through the pandemic and emerge a stronger company.”

Corrections and clarifications : A previous version of this post said Acer's headquarters were closed for 2 weeks. They were not. In addition, while Prendergast said the antimicrobial treatments are part of the manufacturing process, the treatment is not built into the plastics.