The Day Of The Designer

In a word, PCs are just too downright ugly

When personal-computer makers look over their shoulders at all the network computers, smart phones, and videogame machines vying to become the next big information appliance, they may not see much of a technical threat. But when it comes to industrial design--creating a package that's easy on the eye, soothing to the touch, and above all, simple to use--the upstarts can teach the computer gang a thing or two.

Take the new Web cruiser from startup Diba Inc. Half-moon-shaped and purple, its slender, attractive lines mean it can sit almost out of sight on top of a TV. All the controls, including the keyboard, are packed into a snazzy, oversize remote. "If these new devices take off, the design ramifications are huge for PC makers," says Robert Brunner, once Apple Computer Inc.'s top designer and now a partner at Pentagram Design Inc., which designed the Diba devices.

The simple truth is that the good old putty-colored PC that looks so at home in the office is an eyesore at home. Just ask Acer America. It was a no-show in home PCs before it hired frogdesign inc. last year to come up with something better. The answer from frog was the Aspire, a PC with rounded edges and shimmery charcoal-gray or emerald-green colors. These low-cost crowd-pleasers vaulted Acer to No.5 in U.S. home-PC sales in less than six months.

But PC makers who want to head off the new information-appliance wannabes know their redesigns must go beyond a surface makeover. "There will be styling wars to see whose products can shout the loudest. But that's not enough," says Jonathan Ive, director of industrial design at Apple. "We have to be way more aggressive than in the past."

That means rethinking the PC. Manufacturers are working on models that fit snugly into the entertainment center alongside the VCR. Some of these will feature contoured wireless keyboards for easy, couch-based surfing. Other suppliers are concentrating on shrinking today's desktop clunkers so they'll take up less real estate.

BLINKING LIGHTS. Some PCs may begin to look like clones of the consumer-electronics gear they hope to cohabit with in the living room. Laptop king Toshiba Corp., for instance, is working on new desktop models with a stereolike look--featuring dark colors, blinking lights, and a dozen or so single-function metallic buttons--that can be used to play a CD, watch TV, or get phone messages. Sony Corp. will unveil models that move away from the desktop PC's boxy design for a more vertical, stackable look that will coordinate with future Sony products such as digital video disk and hard-drive modules.

Stealth, an upcoming Aptiva model from IBM, is aimed at making chunks of the PC disappear. The parts you need within reach--keyboard, on-off switch, and CD and floppy drives--sit between sleek brackets that hold up a speaker-equipped monitor. The rest of the machine is housed in a minitower that can be kept out of sight. Apple, meanwhile, is considering everything from sleek new desktop designs with flat-panel displays to rugged tablet-style computers for kids.

Flat-panel displays, still prohibitively expensive in large sizes, may someday solve the PC's biggest design problem: the hulking cathode-ray-tube monitor. "As long as you have to design around this big glass bottle, I don't think we'll see anything very interesting," admits IDEO Product Development President David Kelley.

Maybe so. But with keener competition for the home market--both from the new consumer-electronics rivals and from style conscious suppliers such as Acer--PC makers are finally giving industrial design its due. "It's a thrilling time to be a designer," says Apple's Ive. Perhaps consumers will soon be thrilled to see a PC in the living room.

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