Apple's E Mate: Cool Computer, Dude

Apple eMate

Designer: Apple Computer Inc.

From the start, it was clear that Apple Computer Inc. designer Thomas Meyerhoffer faced a tall order: to come up with a computer that would be irresistible to kids from kindergartners to high schoolers. What he came up with is the eMate, a translucent, Space Age-looking purse that is compact enough for small hands yet so sturdy it can take a playground beating. Equally cool: its $800 price tag, which is far less than the typical $1,500-plus for most classroom computers.

Judging from the early reactions, Meyerhoffer passed the test. Throwing aside the typical portable PC's boring, boxy shape, the 32-year-old designer took a gamble on a radical new look that combines curves, sharp edges, and an unusual material for the casing: polycarbonate, the same rugged stuff that's used in protective goggles. "The kids think it's really cool," says Ted Perry, an educator in Carmichael, Calif. "It doesn't look like something they should be worried about."

On the contrary, eMate was designed to be as inviting as possible. While there's no comfy way to pick up today's laptops, eMate features a sturdy handle and a thin front edge for tiny hands to clasp. The oversize clamshell top leaves plenty of room for students to rest their arms while drawing on the screen with the stylus. And Meyerhoffer added touches out of sheer whimsy. When not using the stylus, students can store it, inkwell-style, in two holes along the sides of the keyboard.

That doesn't mean this is just a kid's version of a product designed for adults. Meyerhoffer was careful not to belittle the fashion sense of a generation with sophisticated tastes about the sneakers, skateboards, and clothes they buy. "If you give them something that looks like it's from Toys `R' Us, they're going to say `Get that out of here,"' says Meyerhoffer. Nor is the see-through exterior just a trick to grab a kid's attention. Meyerhoffer opted for a dark-green color that creates an air of mystery and is still a selling point for the adults, who are writing the purchase orders. "If it was totally clear, it would look like it costs $25. After all, this is an $800 computer," says Meyerhoffer.

He did have one major advantage in coming up with this new look. While portable computers require clunky disk drives and power supplies, the eMate is based on Apple's more efficient Newton software, which eliminated the need for such parts. That not only makes the eMate sleeker but more reliable.

Apple's top brass couldn't be more enthusiastic. Under pressure to come up with standout products, Apple execs decided to let Meyerhoffer go hog-wild, a departure from Apple's conservative design approach over the past two years. "I wanted to bring back the iconic quality of our products," says Meyerhoffer. "That's what Apple is supposed to be about--doing products that set us apart." In this case, far apart.

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