PCs get a wow factor

As notebooks don new colours and styles, the industry is rebooting to be in sync. Hewlett-Packard (HP) marketing heads, for one, walked the ramp with Serena Williams to show off their new designer notebooks.

Don?t look now, the PC industry is changing! First notebooks (the fastest growing segment of the computer industry) tried to add a personal touch. Next came brand ambassadors and clever promotions. And now, the notebooks are getting ready to walk the ramp. Leading PC vendors are mingling their product lines with fashion to make a style statement. It?s clearly one of the boldest steps in the PC?s journey from a staid old, boring beige box to a lifestyle product and a fashion statement.

As notebooks don new colours and styles, the industry is rebooting to be in sync. Hewlett-Packard (HP) marketing heads, for one, walked the ramp with Serena Williams to show off their new designer notebooks. You couldn?t miss the fashion statement they made at Wills India Fashion Week. Earlier, they collaborated with MTV to launch a PC design competition. Lenovo is also preparing for the glitz as it launches its new notebooks with frameless screens, touch-sensitive control surfaces and novel textures. Acer conducted intense focus group studies across continents before launching its Gemstone design.

And the design revolution is catching on. ?Design is no more a thrust for Apple and Toshiba alone. In mid-2008, we expect Fujitsu Siemens to come out with a new consumer desktop and notebook portfolio, representing a complete design overhaul,? says Eszter Morvay, senior research analyst, IDC?s EMEA PC Group, looking after PC research in Western Europe.

In a clear bid to woo the home consumer segment, the PC industry is raising its style quotient. The reasons are not far to seek. Notebook PC shipment to home and

SOHO (small office home office) grew at 166% during the third quarter over the same period last year and constituted 43% of total notebook sales. While young professionals, students and women are on their radar, PC vendors are primarily eyeing the youth?seen to be driving the car and mobile phone boom in the country.

The biggest inspiration comes from the mobile phone?s success story. HP?s global marketing head for personal systems group, Satjiv Chahil can?t stop comparing with the mobile phone boom. ?It was a sorry state of affairs,? he vividly recalls the cellphone penetration of 46 million in 2004. Today, notebooks too, are going through the same transition in India, he says. ?One does see surging sales, but the real potential is yet to come,? says the senior vice-president for worldwide marketing, personal systems group, HP. The company is riding high on its recent participation in Wills India Fashion Week. And now they are studying consumer behaviour in mobile phone and car market to understand what the youth wants. We already see notebook range with exterior patterns coordinated with a desktop screensaver, international colour palette, polite corners and feather touch buttons. It might be too early to talk of returns, but design seems to be the best way to differentiate themselves today.

Industry insiders see the stress on design as a means to salvage the shrinking margins. Style comes handy if you want to make more money out of every machine you sell. With each brand making something for everyone, design seems to be a handy differentiator. ?Today, one expects a notebook to be ahead of a PC. It needs to be sitting comfortably in an office and also bring in style when one is at a cafe with a friend. More than the exterior colour or skin, we see experiments done with engineering design. We have tried to refine the looks of laptops through a prism finish, ebony/ivory keys,? says George Paul, executive vice-president, marketing, HCL. ?Our designs focus on providing each segment with what is most important to them and their application usage,? says Acer India chief marketing officer, S Rajendran.

Earlier, similar attempts have been made with designer skins. HP, for one, tied up with fashion designer Suneet Varma and also launched a contest jointly with MTV to embellish its laptops. ?Our brief is to give our consumers a perfect blend of functionality and aesthetics. The appeal of our latest laptop range has features like quick play, feather touch buttons to in-built screensavers matching the exterior skin. The experience has to be perfect with a machine becoming one?s next style statement,? explains Chahil.

As notebooks reach out to a wider audience, they need to offer a range of flavours. A big chunk of users today could be students, women, young professionals, first time users or those upgrading from their old laptops or from a desktop to a laptop. And good looks could translate into a different design for each section. ?For women, differentiation could come in the form of 15.4, 14.1 and 13.3-inch wide-screen panels, new colours, interesting and softer curves on the edges and soft touch buttons. Lightweight materials and smart design to reduce the weight of the laptop has become increasingly important, particularly, for people on the go. It is also an important design criteria for mobile workers and people who travel for work frequently. There are also a rising number of products with integrated webcams, appealing to both consumer and commercial segments,? says Morvay.

And to appeal to the young, who inhabit the online social networks, notebooks need to acquire new dimensions. Many would be willing to shell out a machine, which can play DVDs without booting or can work even if a glass of water is poured on it. Colour, finish and texture are obviously big. Moving away from traditional materials, some companies are experimenting with leather for the external cover. And many would want changeable covers like mobile phones. Precious stones are also invading some expensive models.

Microsoft Next-Gen PC Design Competition 2007, for instance, made champs think ?out of the box?. The winning entry looked like an Asian dining platter, with its chopstick-like input device, called as CHOPstylus that allowed for inputs on the PC?s touchscreen.

And R&D labs of these PC vendors are globally grappling to come up with innovative designs. At Lenovo, the design ideas come from five global development centres and global research centres at Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen in China, Yamato in Japan and Morrisville in USA.

?New technologies or futuristic concepts are studied in global research centres with technologies or concepts ripening in about 12 to 18 months. The global development centre makes the prototype and implements a global user research with the target end-user, and marketing to perfect our design, step-by-step with the centre. After these prototype designs pass the user research, they are integrated into a product development plan and delivered to market on time,? informs Liu Jun, senior vice-president and president, consumer business group, Lenovo. Fashion designer and former robotics student at Hampshire College, Raghavendra Rathore points out three main elements of a notebook design?a future and environment-friendly machine (made of renewable or biodegradable material), power packed and functional (with all the features a user buys a machine for) and style statement.

?A notebook must always begin with functional design, aesthetics, ergonomics and engineering design,? agrees HCL?s Paul.

?The products need not be tacky or go overboard. The idea is to be elegant, wireless and with functional design?features that look beautiful but have significance too,? Rathore sums up the PC industry?s latest quest.

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First published on: 31-03-2008 at 01:42 IST