Zenith Data: Good Looks May Not Be Good Enough

While NEC Corp. is basking in the success of its throughly redesigned notebook computers, rival Zenith Data Systems Corp. is learning the hard way how dangerous a redesign that is only skin deep can be. In the months since the Buffalo Grove (Ill.) portable-computer pioneer launched its restyled models, its share of the notebook market has been on downhill roll.

In 1991, Zenith Data Systems spent millions to give its portables, desktop PCs, and computer monitors a new look. The makeover, by frogdesign Inc., the famed stylist of Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh, tries for a "quality" image through crisp lines and strings of square dentils, or blocks, around the edges of the computer and its screen.

Zenith considers the redesign a triumph: The resulting Z-Series computers have twice this year received industrial-design awards, including a third-place award in August from the Industrial Designers Society of America. "One of the main goals was to improve the image of the company," says Brian Manser, the senior product manager for portables who worked on the redesign. "We've been very successful in that."

COLOR SCHEMES. Since the June , 1992 release of the Z-Series machines, however, Zenith Data's monthly share of retail sales has plummeted. It hit 1% in July, down from 3.4% a year earlier, according to InfoCorp. Zenith, for its part, says the decline reflects a shift by consumers to superstore outlets where it has little presence.

Where NEC's new design accentuates the modularity of its UltraLite Versa portable and its ability to tailor technology to different customer needs, Zenith Data's puts style over function. Critics say the design fails basic laptop ergonomics-for example, by using latches that require two hands to open. Instead of studying customers at work, Zenith's designers pored over color schemes and surface details, relying on existing ergonomic studies for guidance. Repeating dentils "gets gratuitous," says Robert Brunner, Apple's director of industrial design. Good design "has to go deeper into the product and what the product does [in order] to help people interact with it."

What rivals see as shortcomings of the Zenith redesign are all the more remarkable given the advanced technology and competitive prices of the Z-Series notebooks. When they first appeared, they were the lightest laptops with color active-matrix liquid-crystal-display screen technology and the first to have built-in networking capability.

Another problem has been that the design did not anticipate new manufacturing requirements. Delivery of the 3.9-pound Z-Lite computer, Zenith's entry in the subnotebook category, was delayed seven months, in part because of a mismatch between industrial-design and manufacturing requirements, concedes Manser.

Zenith Data isn't giving up on the Z-Series design just yet. Overall sales slumped at the Groupe Bull subsidiary, to about $900 million last year from $1.2 billion in 1990, but Manser insists the design isn't at fault. While Zenith Data's next-generation notebooks will incorporate new ease-of-operation features, they will still focus on straight lines and rows of square dentils. "We aren't yet reaping the full benefit of it," insists Manser. Meanwhile, the market speaks.

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