Online Extra: The Intelligence Behind Alienware

CEO Nelson Gonzalez talks about the high-end PC maker's design philosophy, its signature gills, and its recent acquisition by Dell

Known for its far-out designs, high-end PC maker Alienware has a loyal following among video-gaming enthusiasts. The company, acquired by Dell (DELL ) in March, prides itself on edginess and creativity. Alienware is intent on maintaining those characteristics even as it becomes part of the more staid industry giant (see, 3/24/06, “Can Alienware Keep Its Cool?”). Indeed, the company, which last year increased sales by 50% to $172 million, seems determined to keep its distance from its corporate parent.

BusinessWeek correspondent Louise Lee spoke with Alienware Chief Executive Nelson Gonzalez about the company's design methods and overall philosophy. Edited excerpts follow:

How do the gamers and high-end consumers that you target view their computer?

For them, a PC is a like a car. You want a system that both performs and looks the part, too. Traditionally, form follows function. We aim for having form follow performance. About 78% of our customers view us as they would a BMW or a Porsche.

How important is design in a PC?

Everyone in the industry recognizes the need for good industrial design, especially on the consumer side. A PC is part of a lifestyle. It makes a statement, like cars or jewelry or fashion. You see what care goes into designing homes. People don't want a bland box in the living room or bedroom. They don't want one-size-fits-all. If your living room or bedroom is very modern, putting a beige box there is not going to do it.

What sets gamers apart from the rest of PC consumers?

Gamers by nature are into science fiction and fantasy. We understood that when we created the company in 1997. I'm a gamer myself, as is my business partner. About 60% to 70% of our customers are gamers. The rest are just people who appreciate creative design.

How do you and Alienware create its designs?

I get inspiration from authors, like H.R. Geiger, who also did the creative work for the movie Alien. So much has molded me and the creative people we have here, like Star Wars, and a lot of games we played, like Dungeons and Dragons. Usually, I come up with an idea or people make suggestions. I go to my in-house creative people, who start drawing. We present designs to our internal focus groups, and if they agree, we go to an external focus group. We talk about a new function, and how it would work in different lighting environments and how to get a function into the aesthetics.

What are some distinctive traits of Alienware's products?

We put "gills" on our machines on about two years ago. That's our signature. On our new 19-inch product, we wanted a more elaborate skin to go on top. We said "no" to injection molding; that'd be too expensive. So we did a 3-D image and created a skin with airbrush effects to put on top, to make it more lifelike, like a biomechanical entity. It's really out there.

What's it like being owned by Dell?

We don't abide by the same rules. We're edgy and unconventional. That's our DNA. It's not about the dollars and cents, it's about the love of the product. We don't create products for manufacturing efficiency's sake. At Dell it's hard for them to do that. It's all about volume and scalability.

Dell's working on improving its own design capabilities. What do you think of its efforts?

I'm impressed by the fact they got the new XPS (M2010 and 700 models) out. It says, "We're not just a big ol' company." Who would have thought they could offer that? I'm impressed that such a large organization can do something that radical.

Is Dell reaching out to Alienware, which it's running as an independent entity, to borrow its design experience?

I don't know if it'll ever happen. If they want to come and leverage what we do well in design, we're more than happy to share. They have their own design folks and they're comfortable with that. We do run the risk of becoming more like Dell, and Dell doesn't want that. We don't want that either. The gaming community is looking for signs we're becoming Dell-ized. But try to find the word "Dell" on our Web site.

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