PC DESIGN The Beige Box Gets Attitude

DQI Bureau
New Update

Apple’s recent launch, the G4 Cube, is a trendsetter with its elegant cube shapeOften,Indian consumers wishing to buy PCs are overwhelmed by price wars and the powerof technology–faster processor speed, quicker connections, more memory andstorage space, and freebies from vendors. Salespeople attending to a prospectivebuyer will speak of everything except style. Vendors assume that the user knowswhat a PC will look like–like an Ambassador car, there is nothing new left tounravel.


Jonathan Ive, head, industrial group, Apple Computer, says,"The computer industry has an obsession with product attributes that youcan measure empirically. The industry has missed out on the more emotive, lesstangible product attributes."

LCD panels are now sleek and smart, but expensive to attract volume salesAppleshould know. It’s pioneered style and design, apart from cutting-edgeusability and user-friendly technologies with the Mac, while PC users have beenbrought up on two decades of plain beige boxes. They took it for granted that aPC would be the same rectangular tower with the same bulging monitor, and novariations in color. Apple’s early Mac was a revelation; its 1998 iMac wasstunning. Its smooth, colorful and translucent designs did amazingly well in theEuropean and US markets. In the Indian market too, saturated with stale design,it created ripples, touching the imagination of the Indian customer.

Worldwide, along with desktops, notebook designs are alsochanging to suit consumer tastes. As younger, new-generation

executives get drawn to designed products, Apple again has led the way with itstrendy, curvaceous iBook. The PC notebook world of design has been led byJapanese vendors and their snazzy, slimline magnesium-silver casings–led bySony’s sleek VAIO 505 and other models, and followed by Toshiba, Sharp andPanasonic. US notebook-vendors Dell (with the Lattitude CS) and Compaq (with theM300 and Aero) have followed suit. Even staid IBM has the ThinkPad 240sub-notebook, and though it hasn’t got away from black, it does have somecolor snap-on covers for one of its (bigger) I-Series models. These ultra-lightmodels are increasingly adopted by mobile executives.


Differentiating brands through design

The smooth curves and colors on HP’s Pavilions are seeing new demand from the marketDesignchanges have also been fueled by PCs turning into mass consumer goods. Both MNCand Indian vendors have lined up to make their PC brands visually appealing.Rather than just ramping up processor speeds and RAM size, vendors are spendingmoney to make the products more attractive, using expensive custom moldingsinstead of cheap mass-produced beige boxes.

Recent design directions include: smooth curves and nopointed edges, a handle to carry (HCL’s Beanstalk), different shades of color,a USB port up front, and on the top a spindle covered by lid for keeping CDs (HP’sPavillion). All these help make the PC look friendlier, especially at home,where families keep PCs alongside snazzy consumer electronics.


But there’s another big reason for design: differentiation

PC vendors are trying to extend the products’ appeal beyondplain specs and prices. With prices coming down fast, and specs becomingstandard, color, shape and size are an important brand message carrier. This isnot yet a big trend or demand from the consumer. A recent IDC study on the homesegment in India shows price, service, reliability and warranty are more crucialthan design for the home consumer. But the brandname PC vendors have startedpaying attention to the whims and fancies of the buyers, even if the designsegment is a niche one–PCs in the Rs 60,000 to Rs 100,000 range.

iMac, another Apple product, proves that consumers will choose style over price and availability


Even printers and other peripherals are following the PCroute. HP matches printer colors with PC colors across different models. SaysPrincy Bhatnagar, market development manager, consumer peripherals, HP India,"We did this experiment in Japan and Korea with Sony and Apple and we sawour products flying. It’s a small market here, but design is a good way tosell peripherals." Next year, HP is planning a "Holi edition" ofone DeskJet model.

An Apple a day

Forpioneering design inspiration, vendors continue to turn to Apple, whose latestG4 Cube has again set markets abuzz with its fan-less, chimney-cooled design (ala the Mac II and Mac SE casing), trademark translucence, and a cube shape thatis, remarkably, elegant.


Apple is perhaps one of the few companies where designersplay as important a role as engineers. Right from the creation of the firstproduct, the Apple I, Steve Jobs has clung on to the idea that good physicaldesign is essential to generate a relationship with a consumer. Out of concernfor what he called "elegance" and "taste," Jobs guided thepackaging, manual and advertising for Apple products. Each transition–fromApple I to Apple II then to Lisa to Macintosh–is preceded by extensive searchfor design that will catch the consumer’s emotion and taste. The iMac and thelatest G4 Cube are the results of Apple’s initiatives. As Mathew Nordan, ananalyst for the Forrester Group puts it, "The iMac is a fantastic proofpoint that consumers will buy style. Style over cheap. Style over softwareavailability. Style over ease of support."

Thetrendy design of Apple has had many followers. Sony, NEC, Acer and Gateway fromtime to time came up with models that had good looks as one of the sellingpoints. During the last few years the shape of the monitors have changed, and itwas Sony which led the revolution in this peripheral segment. In Japan wherespace is a problem for the home PC users, flat LCD panels have replaced the bigCRT monitors. Today, LCDs dominate the corporate desktop in Japan. In India,vendors such as HP, Sony and Viewsonic have started selling the flat panels, buthigh price has failed to attract even up-market buyers–the displays cost morethan the PC itself! You’ll see the occasional flat-panel LCD in a prestigiouslocation–such as on the sets of the Kaun Banega Crorepati game show, liftedoff from a US show that also uses flat-panel displays.

What Apple does today, the PC world does tomorrow–or tenyears later. That’s a common Mac-o-phile saying. It’s not far off the markin the world of design. Finally, PC vendors are waking up to design asdifferentiator–and the clunky boxes on our desktops are giving way to productswith appeal, and attitude.  IC