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Building a Better-Looking Computer

Technology: A new crop of designers is out to humanize computing and make that old tan box--gasp!--fun.


Nurtured by a rich diet of trendy software titles and exotic new Web sites, the home computer has developed a dynamic personality in recent years. But it continues to appear on store shelves wearing the same dowdy tan cover and ugly tangle of wires of its predecessor--the office PC.

The paradox has long frustrated industrial designers, who believe that the software revolution should be accompanied by a hardware revolution. Just because tan was chosen for early IBM PCs (mostly for its resilience to fluorescent light), they say, doesn't mean the industry has to keep cranking out generations of undistinguished, unemotional, beige boxes. And now their views are beginning to give birth to attractive machines and paving the way for reconsidering the basics of the PC.

"Computer companies institutionalized design avoidance long ago and got away with it," said Dan Harden of frogdesign in Sunnyvale, Calif., a cutting edge product-design firm credited with giving the Apple Macintosh its crisp, clean lines 15 years ago. "A personal computer should be personal. For a long time, we have wanted to create a computer that makes you feel whimsical or humorous or powerful."

"People are still producing black notebook computers because black is sleek and makes things look smaller, and I am sick and tired of hearing that argument," complained Mark Kimbrough at Design Edge in Austin, Texas.

"A beautiful dark, plum color could do the same thing," he continued. "And guess what, guys? If that hard plastic material was a softer spray-on, maybe a rubber paint, that would make a difference." Although Design Edge has won an award for its sleek Canon Innova notebook design, it hasn't attempted high fashion colors yet, Kimbrough added.

After years of grumbling, however, designers are beginning to break out of the box. Frogdesign led the way last year. Asked by Acer Inc. of Taiwan to design a multimedia personal computer that looks like a consumer appliance rather than a commodity, frog came up with the Acer Aspire. Given free rein, the Acer team "had a blast," Harden said. "We did everything different."

Rounded and sculptured (suggested retail price is $1,199 to $2,999), the Acer features a simple control panel centered in its TV-like facade with a sleek flush monitor and speakers tucked out of sight. Not only has its combination of soft shape and dark colors (charcoal gray and emerald green) defined the Acer aesthetically, its color-coded cable and connectors have won praise for ease of set-up.

The whole idea, Harden said, was to humanize computing, capturing the feelings people have when they are at home, as opposed to work: "It's relaxed, casual and at ease." The design has helped boost Acer home PC sales from 10th to third place in the United States, Harden said, a success story that has heartened the design industry.

Criticism of industry foot-dragging, designers acknowledge, must be tempered with the reality that PC development has surged in such an explosion of accelerated technology and software that it has left little time to tinker with aesthetics. After all, it was only in September 1990 that a Business Week cover story asked the question: "Home Computers: Will They Sell This Time?"

And it is only recently that consumers have begun to show any sense of adventure in the marketplace. Now that PCs have penetrated about 40% of American households, shoppers have some user experience under their belts. They've graduated from the nervous notion that it must look like an IBM.

Mike Goodrich, director of product design for Compaq Computer Corp., sees nothing but opportunity ahead: "We don't expect people to buy office furniture for their living rooms. Why should they buy office PCs?"

Compaq, which introduced the idea of a "lifestyle computer," is making design news this year with a full line of Compaq Presario PCs--five models, each with a specialized use, from workstation to game-playing. The showpiece of the line is the Presario 3020, a project developed with a team from Fitch, an international business and design consulting firm with clout in the consumer electronics field.

The result is a high-powered "luggable" PC (the screen folds flat, and there's stowaway space for the wireless keyboard and mouse) that can be easily moved around the house. It's been saluted by Popular Science magazine as chic evidence that the "bleak era of PCs in rectangular boxes may finally be over."

It's also the most expensive of the line, at a suggested retail price of $3,499. And while prices fluctuate (the least expensive of the new Compaq series is the Compaq 4000 Home and Family series, which starts at $1,699), in today's market $2,000 is considered to be an average price for a basic multimedia computer.

The design developed from intensive ethnographic research, said Edward Paas of Fitch's San Francisco office. "We go into peoples' homes and watch what they do, versus what they might tell us they do," he said.

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