Picture the typical minicomputer, the one that runs a network of dozens of terminals or desktop computers. It's generally a big metal box with racks of printed circuit cards and disk drives and a rat's nest of cords and cables. If you can't visualize one, it's because more often than not, the minicomputer is stashed away in a closet somewhere.
No reason to hide this one. For its new Series 900 computer systems, Motorola Inc. has come up with a handsome stack of plastic modules whose gently rounded fronts and wide, flat base offer a solid, durable look. The International Designers Society of America Award jury calls it architectural: It looks more like a building than a computer.
But this silver medalist is one entry that didn't win for its good looks. "Think of it as the ultimate Lego set," says James M. Shook, industrial design manager at Tandem Computers Inc., who judged the business and industrial products category. "This product is leading the way toward the modularization of computers."
Motorola's Tempe (Ariz.) computer group isn't the first manufacturer to figure out that customers would prefer a modular computer that can be expanded as their businesses grow or that a series of standardized modules can reduce manufacturing and inventory costs. Few companies, however, have come up with such a simple and elegant way of putting all the various pieces together. Everything in the Series 900 snaps easily into place, and up to five modules can be stacked to construct a single, integrated computer.
Buyers can build a simple computer, and, if they need more power or more memory, new modules can be added to put together a fully loaded system that is capable of supporting a network of hundreds of desktops.
Motorola turned to Palo Alto Design Group Inc. for help. That consultancy, which has devised personal-computer enclosures for Dell and CompUSA, came up with a scheme that gets rid of all of the cables that usually clutter a computer. Disk and tape drives, for example, come in plastic trays that slide into the chassis and click into place. And each module has a connector across the top and bottom so that, when they are stacked, all of the electrical connections are completed
The new design solves other problems, too. Nearly 90% of the failures in Motorola's computers were due to loose cables and screws and missing or incorrectly installed small parts. With the new modular design, the company is confident enough to offer a five-year warranty, the longest in the business.