I've got this PC at home. It's cream-coloured, square-ish andt, the iMac stole the show with its colourful and funky design. Nicky Glatter reports on the PC style wars. clunky.
The main unit has a footprint of 36cmx40cm, the monitor measures a staggering 46cm from front to back and it dominates my living room. And now that white has become the new magnolia, I can't even claim the colour tones in with the decor - it just looks dirty against my whitewashed walls.
Bear with me while I rummage around my flat. In the hallway, my iron sits on its board. It's blue and translucent and I've had it for a couple of years. In the kitchen, I watch the water bubbling in my transparent orange kettle before I pour it into the matching cafetiere. In my bedroom is my hairdrier - red, translucent. And somewhere at the back of a drawer, I know there's an old watch with clearly visible workings.
It took a while for the IT industry to come round to the "they can have any colour they want as long as it's translucent" principle. But when Apple unveiled the iMac in May last year, it soon became clear - no pun intended - that it was onto something quite special. By January this year, the original Bondi Blue box was selling so well that Apple upped the stakes and released an orchard of five fruity little numbers. And the result?A machine that was conscious of its environment and sales that were, well, peachy. The iMac's stunning good looks easily made it the vendor's biggest seller of all time - one every 15 seconds in the first 139 days on sale.
But with Apple blazing a multi-coloured trail to the front doors of style-conscious consumers around the globe, it was only a matter of time before cloning took place and lawsuits started to fly. Earlier this month, Apple filed a lawsuit against a joint venture between the Korean manufacturer Daewoo and Future Power over their E-Power range of desktop machines.
Apple claimed the E-Power copied the iMac's design, and with good reason - on a dark night it's a dead ringer for the real thing. Priced at an extremely competitive $799, the E-Power comes in a range of five gemstone colours - amethyst, ruby, topaz, emerald and sapphire. Roughly translated into fruit that's... get the picture?
Moreover, the machine is Wintel based. With Apple claiming that almost 45 per cent of iMac buyers are new to the platform, its double could not only dent iMac sales, but also affect migration to the Mac OS system.
The wrangling between Apple and Daewoo/Future poses some interesting questions. Does style matter? Do people really care what the box sitting on their desk looks like? Within the industry, opinions vary. Some believe that function dictates form. Others, while not believing the opposite, think there's a pool of untapped possibilities to source.
"Only trainspotters still believe in white PCs," claims Michael Oliveira-Salac, style guru at The Independent. He says the iMac is the single most important reason why style magazines are now covering technology - whether cool green or hot fuschia is the colour of the season, there's an iMac to enhance every living space. "It's the perfect ambassador for Apple," says Oliveira-Salac. "Apple began the translucent trend and others followed."
We're not just talking computer peripherals, although there's no ignoring the rash of translucent products that have appeared on the market - a Zip drive from Iomega, a printer from Epson and scanners from Agfa, to name but a few.
In the big wide world, Philips reports that its translucent razor is now its biggest selling model and a quick glance through its catalogue uncovers translucent CD players among a range of consumer electronics with graceful curves and innovative styling. German giant Bosch has recently unveiled a translucent mobile phone, the GSM 509. Designer Philippe Starck has brought out a translucent TV and, as if more evidence was needed, translucent toothbrushes for the Paramount Hotel.
Colour - or lack of it - is definitely de rigueur. Curves are in too.
Notebooks are becoming sleeker by the minute and there are flat-panel monitors every way you turn. Even Intel is getting in on the act. One of the more bizarre products at Cebit was an Intel-designed PC in the shape of the Sydney Opera House.
Among the style-conscious it seems, demand for all things funky has exceeded expectation. "We're struggling to fulfil demand," admits a representative for Agfa. "There's such a huge demand for coloured peripherals." Even the direct vendors have joined the revolution to some extent, embracing the space-saving aesthetic rather than the colour sells theory. Gateway is offering an all-in-one flat-panel machine and Dell has an all-in-one machine on the way.
But before you vandalise your remaining stock of cream-coloured PCs with a paintbrush, listen to the men in grey suits. Their resounding message is that whatever the device, people want it to work - and they're perfectly happy with cream. Dave Griffiths, channel marketing manager at Hewlett Packard, says: "It's about performance and value for investment. If customers were asking for funkier design, we'd be doing it."
John Karidis, engineer at IBM's systems support group, agrees. "You have to treat a PC as a tool rather than a work of art," he says. "The iMac combines internet access with design. It was important for Apple to get attention, but colour isn't everything."
According to Karidis, there are two types of consumer when it comes to design. Across Europe and the US, the sub-£500 PC is driving the market - if a machine is going to be locked away in an office, why bother spending more for a non-square, non-cream box? On the other hand, there are those who don't have a huge amount of space to allocate to a PC. It's a balance of cost versus aesthetics, he explains. "People who have severe space limitations are prepared to pay more for aesthetics."
The burgeoning internet connected games console and set-top box market also poses a threat. What's to stop the internet-hungry consumer, who has no need for any other desktop functions at home, to take this route?
If the gaming community and cable addicts can send and receive emails through their TVs, why not ditch the PC altogether and free up some space, especially if what they see on the high street is uninspiring?
Paolo Puppoli, analyst at Dataquest, nailed his colours to this mast at the Dataquest Predicts 99 conference in Paris last month. When it comes to desktops, only one company has got it right. No prizes for guessing which.
"Apple has realised some people only buy PCs to be trendy," he says.
"It offers one chip speed per quarter, avoiding complications faced by other vendors that stick to each release. Apple divides its market into lifestyles and gains in the supply chain."
But Puppoli has a warning for vendors, Apple included: "When the Playstation generation grows up and is looking to buy a PC, Sony could bring out a product and take market share away from vendors such as Compaq."
It's no coincidence, perhaps, that Sony was singled out. Those in the know have always kept an eye on the Japanese market, where the line between PCs and consumer electronics has become particularly blurred. For reasons of space, state of the art portables have evolved quickly in the Far East.
"From wood to black metal to plastic to the brushed metal which is beginning to predominate, Japan leads the way," says Karidis.
In Europe and the US, he believes this is increasingly the case, and if style equals status, then a good-looking portable is a much more visible way of telling the world you've made it.
The purists may not like it, but the industry is moving into a world of hybrids and multi-function devices. Machines that are somewhere between a portable and a desktop, portables masquerading as handhelds, smart phones, information terminals and set-top boxes. The good-looks list goes on.
Of course, innovation has always been a by-product of computing, in terms of design and functionality, but the market hasn't always been so receptive.
The past decade is littered with state of the art style faux-pas. Remember the internet-ready PC from Brother? The PCTV from Fujitsu ICL, Compaq, Olivetti and the IBM Aptiva division? How about the CDi by Philips or Commodore's CDTV and the network computer? Even Packard Bell's attempt at snap-on colour panels failed.
Apple, too, tried to cash in on the success of its original all-in-one design with the Performa, complete with TV card. Innovators all, some of these machines came in black or dark grey and all were designed to bring living room functionality into the study or vice versa. Eerily, the only product that genuinely went bust rather than simply failed was the black Next cube, the brainchild of none other than Apple's current chief executive Steve Jobs.
In the mid-90s, PC Dealer's then sister title, Computer Retail News, carried regular fortnightly stories of projects going belly up. In early 1996, it dubbed ICL's and Olivetti's PCTV the turkey of Christmas 1995.
Steve Rigby, then purchasing director of Bite, was quoted as saying: "It's been a complete disaster and we've dropped it from our range. The main problem is that consumers don't see the PC as a living room product."
So what has changed? Why are the great unwashed suddenly seduced by set-top internet access when a similar idea three years ago failed to catch on? Perhaps it's nothing more than pre-millennial tension, the feeling that we have to do something different and daring before 2000 is upon us.
Karidis has his own ideas. "TV functionality never made sense - you don't want to watch TV where your PC is located," he believes. "Chances are that if you buy a PC with integrated TV, you already have a traditional PC."
It's all about technology becoming so good that people simply want more.
"Games consoles are not replacements for PC," points out Karidis.
As for the pretty bits, maybe we just weren't ready for them before, he suggests. "Second-time buyers, armed with a greater familiarity with their technology, are happy for people to come into their homes and admire their PC's appearance. As computing novices four or five years ago, they didn't think the pretty one would actually be any good."
So good looks are welcome, as long as they're coupled with functionality.
If the iMac hadn't worked, it wouldn't have caught on.
Looking ahead, the experts say the industry can expect flat panels, curves, colour in moderation, sleek brushed metal portables and the space-saving aesthetic. Plus a few surprises, perhaps. Griffiths reveals that before its sponsorship with Spurs ended, HP was talking to distributors about a Tottenham branded PC. "The ideas are out there but there's not a desperate need right now," he admits.
Whether that's just a sad reflection on the number of Spurs fans around or the fad for aesthetically-pleasing designer boxes is for you to decide.
I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW THE BEIGE HAS GONE
They can have any colour they want as long as it's translucent, said Apple. OK, said the peripherals vendors. Off they went to their factories with translucent plastic and they came out with all sorts of stuff in blue and green which sold quicker than you could say Chunky Kit-Kats.
The iMac has proved to be a fairy tale not just for Apple but for the peripherals vendors too. Bondi this, USB that - quite literally, it's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. So, what's on the see-through shopping list for the well accessorised Mac devotee?
First, there is the Iomega USB Zip drive. It's see-through blue - not strictly an iMac colour, but everyone's got one nevertheless. Second, for general printing purposes, Epson's 740 Blueberry iMac is an essential.
It's the ever-popular Stylus Color 740 dressed up in this season's only shade. But if you think lime or grape will be the new blueberry, you'll find the full range of iMac colours over in the US.
Moving swiftly on to the next USB port, we reach the scanner - an Agfa SnapScan 1212u. The original green has proved a huge seller and it's about to be followed by a blue model. In the autumn, expect Agfa's one-button SnapScan Touch. With integrated fax and email, the scanner will be shipped with a translucent lid and a handle in seven different colours. And if graphics is your customer's thing, don't let them get away without a graphics tablet, the Wacom PenPartner in Bondi.
Looking ahead, the colour bug has proliferated at Apple. Rumours are afoot of an iMac-inspired portable, although the vendor is holding back on a release date. 3Com is getting in on the act too. Palm computing devices are expected soon in a range of colours, possibly under the Apple brand name. Again, the project has been put on hold while Apple focuses on the P1 processor.
And for some, perhaps the best news of all is the rumour that the strawberry and tangerine iMacs are being phased out to be replaced by banana and cherry. Who says best sellers don't grow on trees?
HUES iMAC IS IT ANYWAY?
It's not just your decision to buy an iMac that says a lot about you, but the colour you choose as well. Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Colour Institute, says: "iMac buyers are innovators and young-minded people who are open to the use of colour. Blueberry and strawberry will have the most general appeal - even as children, we are drawn to bright blues and reds. Tangerine, grape and lime provoke more attention and will appeal more to those who think of themselves as non-conformists."
So, what does your iMac reveal about you?
BLUEBERRY: CONSTANCY AND TRUTH
Blue is cool, passive and secure, inspiring calm, confidence and a sense of responsibility. Blue fans are sensitive and form strong attachments. They are confident and trusting with a need to be trusted. They think twice before acting and are generally conservative, even-tempered and reliable. They must be careful of perfectionist tendencies that may make them unrealistically demanding.
STRAWBERRY: POWER AND STRENGTH
Red elicits the strongest emotions in every culture.
It has traditionally signified excitement, dynamism, danger and sex.
People with a passion for red have a zest for life. Achievers and leaders, they are intense, impulsive, competitive, energetic and daring. Routine drives them crazy and they crave new experiences.
TANGERINE: RADIANT AND HOT
Orange is the least understood colour and the most maligned. Orange lovers work and play hard, are adventurous, enthusiastic, gregarious and charming.
They like to be with people, their ideas are original and they have strong determination.
GRAPE: PASSION AND MAGIC
Purple is complex and so are the people who enjoy its uniqueness. Balancing the excitement of red with the tranquillity of blue, it has an aura of mystery. Purple is associated with wit, keen observation, vanity and moodiness. The purple person is enigmatic and highly creative, with a quick perception of spiritual ideas and a tendency to be secretive.
LIME: NATURAL AND PLEASANT
Green symbolises growth and regeneration. It imparts a refreshing, cool and collected feel. People who favour green tend to be stable and balanced and are good citizens, concerned parents and involved neighbours. Green people are intelligent and although they are inclined to be popular and conventional, lovers of bright, citrus greens will forge ahead.
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