If you haven't heard the sad news, well, I hate to break it to you here.
Sim Wong Hoo, founder and CEO of Creative Technology, died on Wednesday (4 Jan), too young, at just 67.
Mr Sim leaves behind a rich legacy, one that changed the PC world for better. I'm talking about Soundblaster sound cards, which made PCs go from beeps and boops to playing music and talking to you.
He also wrote about the No U-Turn Syndrome of Singaporeans, but more on that later. Let's talk about the technology he invented that changed the world.
I remember plugging a Soundblaster 16 into my first 486 PC, and being blown away how the games I played came to life. Cut scenes had actual voice overs! And point and click adventures were now even more immersive with soulful multi-channel MIDI. It was amazing.
It started my love affair with Creative's products. I bought speakers, headphones, and the Zen MP3 players. I'm sure many of you my age (aka millennials) will probably remember the same thing. And these products were not only affordable, but lasted a long time without breaking. I'm sure many of you Creative desktop speakers users will know what I mean.
This would have not been possible without Sim's invention, which made audio processing easily and cheaply available to the mass market. However, as onboard sound became more popular, Creative's star slowly died out.
The decline and return
Profits were falling, but Sim never gave up hope. He got Apple to pay the business US$100 million for its digital music player patent, though it was regarded as a "desperation move" by critics. Nonetheless, it was the correct move given that as the years passed, digital music players were replaced in favour of phones.
I, too, had my doubts, especially when I heard the news of Creative selling its HQ building. Then there was the HanZpad, a tablet powered by Creative's own ARM chips targeted for China's education market in 2012. Was it a success? Only Creative knows.
In 2018, a surprise invite to the Creative HQ and meeting Sim changed my mind again. There, he introduced a new technology, Super X-Fi, which provided spatial sound tuned to your own ears. It would use AI to recognise the best sound profile based on pictures of your ear. Creative also promised a slew of new products to tap on the tech, and I remember Sim was bullish.
I, too, was excited at what it offered, but as the years rolled by, Creative took its time to release products based on this tech. Then there were the limitations, where it wouldn't work on some smaller wireless earbuds that supported it. You'd still need the app to play back music or it would lack spatial mode.
With Apple and Google already implementing it into their devices (with supported hardware for Apple), Creative's SXFI feels a little lacklustre now. But there's still hope to make SXFI mainstream, if Creative can figure out a way without Sim at the helm.
But if there's one thing I remember about Sim by, it's his criticism of the Singaporean mindset.
The No U-Turn Syndrome, or NUTS, was how Sim viewed how Singaporeans always required a rule base to get anything done.
It's referring to how in Singapore, u-turns are not allowed unless there's a sign that allows you to do so, which is different from how other countries do it — you can u-turn unless there's a sign prohibiting you to do so. And to make things even more fun, there are sometimes no u-turn signs, too.
This also means that when you want to do something, you automatically seek the approval of an higher authority, and if there's no rule, the default is "no".
It's terrible, and forces you to just stay in your lane without making changes.
When I started working, I saw plenty of examples of how this worked, especially in larger organisations.
It taught me how to be flexible, how to work around red tape, and how to bend the rules when it made sense. It made me a go-getter at my other jobs, especially one where I needed to get stuff done urgently for fickle-minded bosses.
With the passing of Sim, it doesn't hurt to be reminded of what he said again, and the examples he gave of how inflexible our Singaporean mindset is.
If we're going to honour his legacy, we should honour his words, too. Because as nuts as it sounds, NUTS is still pretty relevant in our society today — if not more so than ever, with the challenges Singapore faces ahead.
RIP Sir, you will be missed.
Aloysius Low is an ex-CNET editor with more than 15 years of experience. He's really into cats and is currently reviewing products at canbuyornot.com
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