The car industry has come a long way since the Model T changed the world. Instead of one mass-produced car in one color, there's everything from sporty roadsters to monster sport-utility vehicles. But what about the PC, the definitive product of the second half of the 20th century? Not so. For the most part, consumers have a choice of desktop or laptop, fast or superfast, and any color they want so long as it's beige. O.K. -- or black, or maybe gray. Henry Ford would approve.
It's time for the PC to take a big leap forward. Since the early 1980s, it has evolved from a glorified typewriter to a do-everything digital hub with very few changes to its outward appearance. Innovative twists have come and gone, like Apple Computer Inc.'s (AAPL ) all-in-one iMac and Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT ) WebTV console for the living room. But high price tags and proprietary software have kept them out of the mainstream, especially since $500 got you a garden variety desktop from Dell Inc. (DELL ) or Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ ).
Now, with our rapidly expanding digital lives, we're ready for more choices: machines designed for particular jobs, particular rooms of the house, or particular types of people -- say, music lovers that want hi-fi sound, or parents who want something nearly unbreakable for their pre-teens. Now that millions of people are using multiple PCs, there's no need for them all to look and work the same. "The idea of a one-size-fits-all PC doesn't work," says Mike Nuttall, co-founder of IDEO Inc., a Palo Alto (Calif.)-based design firm that designed the first laptop computer for GRiD Systems in 1982.
People are willing to pay for cool hardware, too. Apple has sold 3 million iPods at prices similar to that basic Dell or HP box. Boutique PC makers, including Alienware and VoodooPC, are ringing up sales of $3,000 machines with attention-getting transparent covers and glow-in-the-dark components. It helps that overall PC demand is bouncing back. Worldwide sales increased 17% in the first quarter, and research firm Gartner Inc. predicts they'll hit a record 186.4 million in 2004, up 13.6% from 2003. With that kind of volume, there's room enough for innovators to carve out sizable new niches.
In that spirit, here are five ideas for spicing up the plain-vanilla PC:
You wouldn't know it from the size of the hulking desktops and thick-as-a-brick laptops sold by Dell, HP, and others, but the size of PC parts continually shrinks. Some innovative companies are taking advantage of this law of electronics. By using chips that consume less power and designing better cooling systems, PC boutiques such as Falcon Northwest and Shuttle Computer make fully loaded screamers that are the size of two six-packs stacked up. Using built-in handles, as on Falcon's FragBox, for example, gamers can comfortably carry them to "LAN parties" to do video combat with friends.
But these PCs will seem positively clunky compared with some of the miniature models that are around the corner. Startup OQO Inc. just announced a 14-ounce, five-inch-long mighty mite that's small enough to fit in a pocket yet powerful enough to run the same software that runs on a high-end desktop PC.
That way people can carry all of their work and fun stuff without having to lug a laptop. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is backing a similarly pint-sized PC, dubbed the FlipStart, that's expected to ship next year. Even more extreme, M-Systems Inc. is cramming a processor and other PC circuitry into its keychain-sized storage devices. Plug it into a monitor and keyboard, and it's a PC. If the airports and coffee shops of tomorrow make such peripherals available, tiny PCs of this sort may one day provide the ultimate in portable computing.
Show It Bigger
Now that their prices have fallen to just a few hundred dollars, flat-screen monitors are becoming standard for desktop PCs in homes and offices. But most are the same size as the old cathode-ray tubes -- usually 15- or 17-inches diagonally. PC makers should design models with bigger screens in mind, to reduce eye strain and improve the experience for movie-watchers and gamers. Microsoft is even experimenting with 44-in. high-resolution displays that curve around a user's desk like a space-age console, so multiple programs can be seen at one time. Microsoft researcher Gary Starkweather, the inventor of the laser printer during his days at Xerox (XRX ) in the 1970s, thinks such setups will be commonplace in offices within three years. The reason? He figures they could provide a 25% to 30% improvement in productivity. "It has real bottom-line value," he says.
With the popularity of digital music, TV recorders like TiVo, and flat-screen TVs that can double as computer monitors, the PC has a chance to become a command center for home entertainment. Yet early attempts based on Microsoft's Media Center PC software have failed to catch on. They're too noisy, too big, and too ugly. And they don't offer consumers the entertainment value they have come to expect. Where's the high-definition video or sophisticated sound processing? And how about delivering simple wireless networking to make it easy to move digital fare from the hard drive to the TV or stereo? If packaged better, the PC could find a comfy place in the living room. For proof, consider Japan, where consumers are snapping up space-saving hybrid devices from Fujitsu and NEC that are designed to meet all of an entertainment junkie's needs. It's a PC, TV, DVD player, TiVo, and stereo all loaded into one svelte package. PC makers say such all-in-one devices don't play well in the U.S., where space isn't such a constraint. Evidently, their living rooms aren't as cluttered with cable boxes, remote controls, and DVD players as most people's are.
Make It Fit In
Even the media center PCs look too much like computers to be invited into the living room. The industry knows that must change. Intel and IDEO have built a prototype of a mobile entertainment PC, called Florence, that appears to be nothing more than a sleek, black TV screen with the computer hidden away inside the flat-panel display. For the office, Microsoft and HP are developing a desktop workstation designed to reduce "gadget sprawl." Rather than scatter your tablet PC, voice-over-Internet telephone, and personal digital assistant across your desk, you could snap them all into handy built-in connections on the monitor or the PC chassis. Elements of both designs should start to show up in mainstream PCs later this year.
Does blending in mean bland and dull? It doesn't have to. Apple Computer has managed to hold its base of loyal fans with its elegant designs. Contract manufacturer Hy-Tek Manufacturing Co. is getting raves for its $6,500 TekPanel 300, a 30.5-in. diagonal wide-screen monitor with a built-in PC that looked at home in the Trump Tower loft used by The Apprentice this spring. Acer Inc., meanwhile, has turned heads with its candy-apple red Ferrari notebook PC. Acer Chairman Stan Shih says now that most PCs have more than enough horsepower to satisfy customers, design will be the key to distinction. "Just like a car, you look at it and you know what brand it is," he says.
Sadly, that sentiment is hard to find among PC makers. It's time for them to move beyond the equivalent of the black four-door sedan. Give us some pizzazz.
By Andrew Park