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News » Miscellaneous

House of Style

Attractive computers are easier to use, so why are we still on beige boxes?



Recently, this column examined Microsoft’s and Apple’s next stabs at creating a better user interface through style. Apple is taking the high road with OS X, an interface that Steve Jobs has described as “something you’d want to lick.” Stop laughing, he’s right. Microsoft’s effort involves a somewhat bland, but potentially very useful, “home page”-style approach.

The user experience doesn’t begin and end with the software, however. In fact, most people form their first impressions of a computer system the moment their eyes fall on that enormous beige mess of 20-pound boxes and cables that take an entire desk to house.

You see, the biggest hurdle for computer newbies isn’t understanding how the computer works at all. Computers are simple. Menus and icons have been refined to the point that any person should be able to sit down at a computer and accomplish anything. The hurdle is getting the user to recognize that they are smart enough to do it.

But the big ol’ beige box stops many users dead in their tracks. There’s something about a big ugly pile of machinery that says, “You need to be trained to use me. Preferably a degree in engineering.” The most common thing I hear from users who are afraid of sitting down at their computers is, “I’m afraid I’ll break it.”

I’ve seen many of these same users overcome their fears when placed in front of more-manageable laptop computers, but the real revolution came with the Apple iMac computer. The iMac not only made headway in design for being an all-in-one unit that didn’t require cables strung all over the place, but it was the first computer that was truly fashionable—almost to a fault. It’s hard to buy computer hardware without feeling like you’re spending your money on child-friendly Fisher Price toys these days.

The iMac is really an amazing piece of hardware, though. It practically hypnotizes the user into feeling the translucent glass-like shell. If Orrin Hatch had come in Bondi Blue, he might be running against Al Gore instead of G.W. I truly believe that the design of this computer is the biggest advance in computer usability in years. One artist I know, who kept computers at arms length for years due to a phobia of all things technological, finally bought an iMac after seeing a commercial starring Jeff Goldblum. The commercial extolled the iMac’s lack of cables (this was back when Jeff Goldblum still had some nerd sex-appeal cachet, before he signed on to Jurassic Park II).

Unfortunately, the iMac design revolution hasn’t exactly swept the computer industry at large. You might think that between a hundred competing manufacturers, many of which have far more money to spend than Apple, one of them could come up with some successful computer designs. You’d be wrong.

In late 1999, Dell and Compaq introduced their WebPC and iPaq computers. Both were very sleek and ultra-stylized. They featured crisp LCD monitors and took up less space on a desk than the iMac. Quite frankly, they made the iMac look cheap. That was sort of the problem.

What none of the manufacturers seem to understand is that the iMac was a departure for Apple on two fronts: First, it was brilliantly designed; second, it was the first affordable Macintosh computer ever. A basic iMac can be had for less than $800. The Dell WebPC and Compaq iPaq cost more than $2,000 each! As a result, both companies concluded that consumers want inexpensive, powerful computers. They couldn’t be more wrong. The users to whom these style-oriented computers should be targeted are newbies who want a reliable, accessible system on a limited budget.

IBM is taking one more shot at a design-savvy system called the NetVista, and it is by far the best-looking computer I’ve ever seen. In fact, it looks like the computer is missing. There’s a laptop-style LCD display, and all the computing components are housed in a small base that supports the screen. IBM isn’t even attempting to make it a mainstream success, however; the design will be marketed directly at the Sharper Image set. It’ll probably sell, but it won’t be a blockbuster.

The revolution will happen, but it will happen slowly. While nobody besides Apple has been able to crack the desktop-design nut, the real innovation is taking place on the mobile-computer front. The metallic purple Sony Vaio laptops look like they come from a parallel design-oriented dimension where everyone’s socks match.

Another design success on par with the iMac is the sexy, svelte Palm V “personal digital assistant.” Sexy, you say? The Claudia Schiffer-edition Palm Vx (with expanded RAM and an exclusive metallic baby-blue housing) is shipping this fall, available at This is pretty cool, but forgive me for getting a little nervous about sex-symbol endorsements of computer hardware. When Courtney Love starts pitching her own brand of CD-Rs, I’m cashing in my RAM chips.