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Originally published September 11, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 11, 2006 at 8:54 AM

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Microsoft wants PC package to appeal to the eye

For the past seven months, Microsoft has offered computer manufacturers guidelines on color, shape and other design elements for PCs that...

Seattle Times technology reporter

For the past seven months, Microsoft has offered computer manufacturers guidelines on color, shape and other design elements for PCs that will run Windows Vista.

This may sound like mere window dressing compared to the five years of effort poured into developing the company's flagship operating system, but computer design is of no small consequence to Microsoft.

"By far most [Windows] sales are attached to new PCs, so Microsoft has a vested interest in ensuring that the entire PC package is compelling enough to draw in users," said Steve Kleynhans, vice president of Gartner's Client Platforms Group. "If the operating system looks good, but the PC looks bland and uninteresting ... consumers won't be as interested in buying a new machine or Vista."

More than 80 percent of the revenue Microsoft generates from Windows sales comes from computer manufacturers who pre-install versions of the operating system on machines they sell. That sales channel was worth at least $10.5 billion to the company in the last fiscal year, according to Microsoft's most recent annual report.

By the same token, Vista is important to PC makers. Microsoft's decision to delay broad availability of Vista until January is costing the industry an estimated $4 billion in sales this year, according to Gartner.

Microsoft's internal-hardware group already has announced a wireless, backlit keyboard to complement Vista and is expected to introduce more new mice and keyboards at an event later this week.

As to the PC itself, the company would not provide details on its design guidelines beyond a prepared statement.

"We created a beautiful Windows Vista [user interface] and wanted to be sure our partners knew how to translate it to hardware design," Microsoft said.

More cohesion

The goal is "a deeper level of cohesion between Windows Vista and the hardware that supports it" to help create demand for new PCs.

Cohesion is a hallmark of a Microsoft competitor and computer-design leader.

"Apple Computer has shown that if you control the software and you control the hardware, you can make the two fit harmoniously into a beautiful, elegant package," said Don Norman, a former Apple executive who now consults with Microsoft and wrote the 2004 book "Emotional Design: Why We Love (or hate) Everyday Things."

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Joshua Maruska, a senior industrial designer with Seattle-based Teague, said compelling design is a challenge in the PC industry.

Thought of mostly as tools, computers are often bought and sold based on a checklist of technical specifications without much thought to the overall experience, he said.

That's starting to change with Vista, said Maruska, whose firm has been working with computer makers and Microsoft to help craft machines that reflect the new operating system's design language.

High-end editions of Vista include the "Aero" user interface, including a "glass" effect designed to make the system feel lighter and help users focus on content, rather than the interface surrounding it.

Aero, an acronym for "authentic, energetic, reflective and open, " is something designers try to keep in mind as they create Vista PCs, Maruska said.

"An example of how 'authentic' might be best represented is instead of painting things silver to look like metal, use metal," he said.

"And if metal is too expensive, then don't try to fake it. Come up with a nice way of using plastic and let it be plastic."

The Vista design kit suggests "accelerated curves" and high-contrast colors, including "obsidian" black and "ice" white, according to a Business Week story this summer.

Integration adopted

Computer manufacturers are adopting Microsoft's suggestions to varying degrees.

Many of the Vista guidelines complement Hewlett-Packard's design language, according to a company statement.

The second-largest PC seller has worked closely with Microsoft and plans to launch new products in conjunction with the operating system.

"HP is devoting considerable resources to integrate hardware and software," Sam Lucente, HP's vice president of design, said.

The design of market leader Dell's latest line was not directly influenced by the Microsoft guidelines.

"We do plan to incorporate Microsoft's new buttons onto our keyboard when Vista becomes available," Marco Peña, a Dell spokesman, said. "That is about the closest you will get to a direct connection between Microsoft's [industrial design] toolkit and Dell design."

However, many of the design elements Dell has incorporated into its new computers are in line with Microsoft's guidelines, he said.

"Customers wanted to see things that were a little more appealing to the eye [and] kind of stood out a little bit more than your traditional dark black or gray box," Peña said.

Some of the company's new desktop boxes are slimmed down, cased in white and silver or have color accents. The company has taken pains to hide clutter and design a PC that "looks great in any room."

Design expert Norman considers the sleek, modern approach PC makers have taken to be wrong-headed. Even Apple's products and new flat-screen televisions miss the point.

"It's magnificent. It's beautiful. It belongs in a museum. And that's just the problem," Norman said.

"If I put it in my house, it clashes. It stands out. It doesn't fit."

Norman thinks computers have transitioned from "high technology" to essential components of everyday life. "And therefore they should be furniture," he said.

"When the computer is in the study or in the office, nobody really cared," said Norman. "When it's in the living room or family room, it really matters."

Little change in format

The basic format of the desktop computer has changed little since the introduction 25 years ago of the IBM PC and its subsequent clones.

"In a way, the IBM PC was a retrograde step in the sense that it was sort of a simple [cathode-ray tube] stuck on a box of electronics with a keyboard in front," said Bill Moggridge, designer of the original GRiD Compass laptop computer in the early 1980s and co-founder of IDEO, a leading global design firm.

The drab, rectangular box persisted well into the 1990s. Design innovation, when it did happen, was driven largely by portable computers.

In 1998, Apple brought new shape and color to the personal computer with the introduction of the iMac.

"Although it was very dramatic in terms of its appearance, and the transparency of the materials made it seem fresh and new and interesting, it wasn't actually a breakthrough in terms of a format," Moggridge said. "It's still the same physical arrangement."

A bigger change came with the next iMac, which abandoned the bulky cathode-ray tube monitor for a flat screen mounted on an articulating arm.

Less obtrusive

Moggridge and Norman see computers, and their design, going in two directions: into the environment and onto the person.

"There's a movement away from the desktop solution, which one felt kind of chained to," Moggridge said.

As computers become more intelligent and increasingly enter living and working spaces away from the desktop, there could be a push for design to become less obtrusive.

"We're less interested in the sort of external, industrial-design. ... We'd like the box itself to vanish into the wall, in a sense," he said.

Norman said he already hides most of his electronics behind cabinets and under desks, displaying only the monitors. "Why not make it so that computers fit into furniture?" he said.

Design of wearable devices such as smart phones could go the opposite direction.

"As it becomes more personal, it has a chance to become a little more overt in its aesthetic," Moggridge said, suggesting computers could take on the qualities of jewelry or watches.

"It's made to fit our particular individuality in the same kind of way that clothes are."

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

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