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OPINION:
A Computer as a Fashion Statement, Part II

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Contributed by Stanislav Kelman
osOpinion.com
November 22, 2000


A computer can be more than just another beige box.

In This Story:

Art, Not Science

Look at Audio

Coming Around

In last week's article, I started out discussing the iMac and its enormous effect on the way we perceive computer technology. This time around, I would like to shift gears a bit and ponder the emerging trends in the high end home computing sector.

However, before I continue, I would like to mention that if I hear the argument that "a PC should be kept under the desk" just one more time, I'm gonna scream. Instead of wasting your time repeating this mantra over and over again, I kindly suggest that you pry yourself away from your keyboard and go visit a local Modern Art Museum. Perhaps you will finally discover that there is a wonderful world out there where things come in a variety of bizarre shapes and vibrant colors.

Art, Not Science

Let's talk about some pieces of technology that might someday make their way into the above mentioned Museum. It does not surprise me a bit that once again it is Apple who is leading the way with innovative form-factors, quality workmanship, and exotic materials. Their G4 Cube is arguably the best looking computational device ever mass produced. I feel so strongly about this view that I'm compelled to dare you to name anything else on the market that is even in the same league.

Appearances aside, so far, the Cube hasn't been very successful in generating high volume sales. The reason for that is simple -- it just doesn't offer as much "bang for the buck" as more conventional multi-processor PowerMac G4 systems. In spite of its unmatched shock factor, there are only so many people out there who are willing to pay a hefty premium for the looks, while sacrificing performance and expendability.

On the other hand, the Cube will probably go down in history as a breakthrough product. Its claim to fame is that it is the first luxury desktop computer to become widely available. This is particularly significant because it might be yet another sign of an emerging trend. These days computers are becoming a regular household item, not just merely a curiosity or a utilitarian productivity tool. As a result, style is gradually emerging as a top consideration.

Nevertheless, while Apple is making history, the other industry sharks still fall far short of being able to capitalize on the public's desire for elegant computers. Thinking "outside of the (beige) box" is not what can be expected of the same people who only recently freed us from the agony of using the DOS prompt. It wouldn't be a surprise if the same folks that took more than a decade to make a half-decent copy of the original Macintosh GUI, might need ten more years to come up with a design which has even a fraction of the visual appeal of the Cube.

Look at Audio

All the rhetoric and propaganda notwithstanding, the computer industry seems to be stuck with the hobbyist mindset that dates back to the late seventies. This stands in a sharp contrast with other consumer technology sectors such as home entertainment, wireless communications, and personal transportation.

First, let's concentrate on the market for fine audio audio components. For years, companies like Bose, Harman Kardon, Acoustic Research and Polk Audio have been catering to the "high end, yet not entirely out of reach" niche. While bigger names such as Sony, JVC, Pioneer and Kenwood dominate the market, the smaller premium brands offer certain "look and feel" qualities that distinguish them from the volume leaders. There is also a matter of prestige which has more to do with perceptions than with actual sound qualities or technical specifications. For many people, the fact that a US$500 Aiwa mini-system can pump out more Watts per channel than a $10,000 Bang and Olufsen is entirely irrelevant.

Same goes for cars, where the Porsches and the Corvettes of the world have become status symbol, drifting further and further away from their roots as racing machines. Many owners of such dream cars might not even know what those silly horsepower ratings are good for. The mere fact that a lot of these automobiles now feature automatic transmissions is a clear indication that performance considerations, or even the "fun factor," have been pushed way down to the bottom of the list.

Furthermore, unlike the two examples above, the cell phone industry is considerably younger than the PC business. However, it can still be used as a good example of how style can quickly become the primary selection criteria, virtually eclipsing every other factor. If you have any doubts about that, just go to a nearby wireless dealer and listen in as the great majority of people discuss phones from an aesthetic perspective, before even inquiring about their features.

Coming Around

Sooner or later, the same thing is bound to happen in the realm of computers. As even the cheapest PCs of today are capable of running most mainstream applications, the emphasis is gradually moving away from the increasingly meaningless MHz ratings and towards user experience and, ultimately, superficial things like colors and scents. After all, if we already know what a "new car smell" is, it might not take long before we start judging computers in much the same way.

All in all, thanks to risk-takers like Apple and Palm, it's getting harder and harder to argue that looks don't matter. For one thing, according to Shopper.com, Palm Vx is much more popular than Palm IIIxe, although the only reason to pay a 60% premium for the former is its slimmer aluminum case design.

But then again, there always will exist the true geeks who don't even care to put the cover back onto their custom-built boxes. For them, it will forever be the inner beauty that matters most. And, regardless of everything that I have just said, I will probably stay a lifelong member of the club.

Talkback Forum


Author's background:
Stanislav Kelman lives in New York, a city that is obsessed with high fashion and appearances. And here, more than anywhere else, it seems obvious that it is only a matter of time before the antiquated beige PC design will fade into oblivion. Stanislav believes that the future of computing is as colorful and trendy as his new gadgets, the green Handspring Visor Deluxe and the blue Nokia 8260. He would love to hear your reaction to his opinion columns, so feel free to drop him a line at osOpinion@LetItBe.org.

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