The Next Pc?

Consumers Are Demanding Style As Well As Function From Their Computers

July 12, 1999|By Deborah Claymon | Deborah Claymon,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

Choosing a computer style has long been easy: You can have any color you want, as long as it's beige.

In a world where people speed by in hunter green sports cars and flaunt cherry red cellular phones, the personal computer -- perhaps the most important new consumer product of the last two decades -- has stuck with its original bland shade and boxy architecture. "Function over form" has been the serious-minded computer industry's message to the masses, and the masses have gone along.

Until now.

New waves of computer consumers are looking for devices that reflect their personalities. They're excited by Apple Computer Inc.'s iMac, available in five fruity colors, and Palm Computing's elegant aluminum Palm V digital organizer. And soon, they'll find a multitude of other stylish choices, fostered by companies as pragmatic as Intel Corp., Toshiba Corp. and Motorola Inc.

Steve Jobs, Apple's co-founder and interim chief executive, was ridiculed by techies when he said that "for most consumers, color is much more important than the megahertz, gigabytes and other gibberish associated with buying a PC."

However, Jobs was vindicated in April when Apple reported second-quarter earnings rose a better-than-expected 69 percent mainly due to enthusiasm for the iMac. "We are making fun, exciting products for happy people," he added then. "This is not about building beige boxes for people that have their ties on too tight."

But this penchant for pizazz is more than a late-'90s triumph of superficiality. The advent of computer style sharply underscores the changing role of electronic devices in our daily lives.

No longer are they tucked away in home offices or hidden in heavy briefcases; instead, they are displayed in the home like furniture and carried on the streets like handbags. And they are being bought not just by people interested in their inner workings, but by those who care simply about what they do -- and, increasingly, how they look.

Robert Rollins, 41, a computer programmer from Dallas, was captivated by the iMac in the store. "These machines look positively futuristic. The beige PCs on the next aisle look like something from a previous decade. Sort of like going to a car lot in the '60s and seeing the new '65 Ford Mustangs parked next to leftover Ford Falcons."

Making design more than an afterthought is particularly challenging for computer makers, who rely largely on standard components and put most of their effort into selling their machines as cheaply as possible.

And yet design could help computer makers snap out of a dizzying plunge in profits. Although PC shipments surged 14 percent in 1998, revenues rose a mere 1 percent. That's because prices have plummeted. As of January, 61 percent of PCs sold at retail cost less than $1,000, a jump from 25 percent in early 1997.

Yet plenty of consumers opted for the simplicity and vogue of an iMac at almost $1,200 rather than a standard PC with additional features for hundreds less.

"The traditional PC was designed to look like a scaled-down version of a supercomputer. But as computers become commodities, the only way to differentiate them is through their physical interaction with a user," said Sohrab Vossoughi, the principal industrial designer at Ziba Design of Portland, Ore.

Ziba was one of eight industrial design firms chosen to participate in a fashion show of prototype PCs at the Intel Developer Forum in February, which challenged developers to think about computers as consumers, not as engineers.

Intel also announced its new FlexATx motherboard, which reduced the size, power and cooling requirements of the PC's basic circuitry by almost 25 percent. That frees designers from some current physical constraints.

"Every now and again you have to prune the tree to let the new stuff grow," said Steve Whalley, PC initiatives manager for Intel's desktop product group.

As the computer is reshaped, the bulky monitor is also due for downsizing. As expensive flat-panel displays get cheaper, they might help redefine the spatial relationship between people and PCs. Swedish developer MultiQ is already selling what it calls a Flat Panel Computer that looks as if it were lifted from the Starship Enterprise -- for a steep $3,500.

But getting top PC makers to break away is an economic challenge, said Malcolm Smith, vice president of Palo Alto Products International. "There has always been a cottage industry of folks who could, say, shrink-wrap your Compaq in fake leather," Smith said. But he added that the industry as a whole lacks the "guts" to go out on a fashion limb.

The companies pushing the design envelope today are on the fringe, or at least more radical divisions of larger companies. Le Tosh, a subsidiary of Toshiba PC Nordic, has restyled the cases of four existing Toshiba laptops to sell a story of personal lifestyle. The computers, which come with rakish carrying bags to match, have names like Working Snob, Tank, White Box and Jackie K.

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