One weird feeling

Great Design: Apple gets it..Others Don’t

There can be no doubt that a good measure of Apple’s post Steve Jobs return success is based on incredible industrial design. The statement is, perhaps, anathema to hard-core Mac users who love to point to increased productivity and a lower TCO (total cost of ownership) burden. There is some logic to the argument, computer aesthetics really don’t enhance productivity or provide any monetarily measurable benefit to the end user. Yet the undeniable fact remains that on the consumer level good looks move computers.

We have to look no farther than the original iMac (sure it seems horribly lame now, but in 1998 it was a breath of fresh air). The gumdrop shaped, translucent progenitor of “i’s” probably single-handedly saved Apple computer. To truly understand the impact of the design it is only necessary to note that it was very similar in capabilities to a beige desktop Mac. So the design alone moved a ton of iMacs, in fact it proved to be a popular enough model that it ended up at Best Buy and Sears. The truism does not extend to pro-level machines, where price and utility is prized more than slick looks, and that is reinforced by the utter failure that was the G4 Cube. It looked great, was practically silent and sold three or four units.

So how well has Apple learned their lesson and how are their competitors faring? A brief sojourn through the product lines will prove beneficial. Starting at the top of the desktop line we note that the PowerMac is not the most elegant computer. It is devoid of things a consumer might desire: stereo speakers, a plethora of easily accessed ports and compact size. For the professional, however, the design is near perfect: the computer’s internals are easily accessible, the tower is a somber gray and the majority of ports remain positioned similarly to the computer the tower is likely to replace. That is great design aiming solely at the professional user.

A home user, Apple is certain, will be more likely to purchase an iMac. Here we see any number of changes designed to facilitate integration into a home environment. All the ports are easily accessible, stereo speakers are built-in, the usual rat nests of cables are easily hidden, and finally, the tiny form factor minimizes space used. Moving down the line we find ourselves face to face with the Mac Mini. The Mini is designed to be cheap and it excels at this. Sure the ports are behind the box, opening the thing is more frightening than being forced to watch a Yahoo Serious movie Marathon but it is small (minimal investment in raw materials), and can easily be used sitting on top of your favorite windows driven box. And finally the eMac…Well the eMac could easily be used to bludgeon someone to death so it has that going for it. In any event, with the exception of the eMac, it is fairly clear that Apple designs their offerings carefully with the most probable end user in mind.

At this point one has to wonder why the PC side doesn’t seem to get the point of breathtakingly great design. With the exception of Sony (who churns out some nice designs) and some lesser know manufacturers there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of interesting stuff going on. Perhaps this is best illustrated by Hewlett Packard’s latest offering. If you take the time to look at the picture you’ll note that it is all things to all people. You’ve got your speakers, your eight in one card reader, your remote control, your iPod dock…iPod dock? Yes, the thing has the first ever iPod dock, or more specifically the first ever plastic deal to hold your iPod dock. The most interesting thing about the dock is the placement, it sits directly atop the computer. That means if you want to shove the unsightly thing out of the way (as you probably will, it is a media center PC meaning that it intends to reside in your main living area) that bit of functionality is lost. The poor placement of the dock, the wires that will be running everywhere, and the faux metal plastics leave me unimpressed.

Others disagree. Paul Thurrot calls the computer “fricking cool looking.” Presumably he uttered this as sped off in his Pontiac Aztek to pick up a box of well-designed office furniture from Wal-Mart. Or perhaps the statement speaks more the expectation level of PC fans than one individual’s taste. Either way it is clear that HP wants to innovate with the design. So how is it that a company as large as Hewlett Packard can keep chugging out poor to average designs? Cost is not the motivating factor; a million dollars spent on really great industrial design over the entire run of the computer would add a negligible amount to the purchase price. It also simply isn’t the case that only Apple has the talent necessary to crank out really great design (witness some of the smallish PC manufacturers) so one is left thinking that fear might be the motivating factor. Apparently a little different is acceptable to Hewlett Packard but a radical rethinking is completely unthinkable. Too bad, I’d like to see really well designed machines coming from the larger PC manufacturers.

Something very odd has happened to me this morning. Well it’s not all that odd but it left me with a weird feeling. I was reading this article at LowEnd Mac. I’ll summarize for those of you who don’t feel like following the link. Jeff Adkins waxes poetic on Mac Evangelists. Jeff argues that Mac evangelism is sorely needed now as much as it ever was though it seems to be fading into the background. Then he lists 10 reasons why we, as Mac users, should keep fighting the good fight. Reason six is “Somebody needs write a press release on this guy and post it everywhere” I clicked on that link expecting a story about some obscure Mac user protesting at Redmond. Instead, whammo, one of my articles popped open. I thought I had accidentally brought another window to the foreground but investigation revealed that I had followed the link correctly. Being surprised by yourself is a very odd feeling.

For all you snowbound Mymac folks: I’m happy to report Knoxville, TN is getting some snow, I feel your pain. So far we have a thin translucent layer stuck to the Barbecue grill. I plan on grilling ribs for dinner in spite of the inclement weather.

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