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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.