Time to reboot your personal potato

Written by Rakesh Raman | Updated: Jan 17 2008, 04:55am hrs
Everyone, you know, may go gaga over Apples Macbook Air for the next few days. Its just 0.76 inches thick and weighs 1.3 kg. But laptops that take gravity-defying inspiration from sports shoes are not representative of the market for PCs. These are machines that came into being in the early 1980s, are twentysomething now, but are already showing signs of senility. While change is supposed to be the only constant in the tech market, it doesnt seem to hold true of PCs. Its the same old monitor, same keyboard and same mouseboring, clunky and old-fashioned. Can it become sexy again Lets see.

Today, in a sea of lookalike products, PC makers are darting their eyes all around to find that missing wow factor that could make their products distinctand smarter. Asian companies like Lenovo, Asustek and Acer are trying out innovative designs. American players like HP, Dell and, of course, Apple are already aggressive on the design front. Coloured cases, hand-embossed leather, jewelled hinges and polished keyboards have all become accomplices in the project to sell PCs as a luxury item. Some PC makers focus is on miniaturisation. Norhtecs MicroClient JrSX, for example, is a desktop PC client machine but of the size of an actual notebook. The 500-gm PC measures just 4.5x4.5x1.4 inches. Another called Space Cube, offered by Japanese firm Shimafuji, occupies just 2x2x2.2 inches of space and is said to be the smallest PC in the world.

Also, of late, to encourage product designers, Microsoft is holding a Next-Gen PC Design Competition, endorsed by the Industrial Designers Society of America. Participating designers are supposed to focus not only on the products look but also on software that would fascinate the user.

No doubt, all these initiatives are aimed at keeping the PC market from saturation. The idea is to blend in with the users lifestyle. Some spend almost one-third of their daily time, as much as they devote to sleep, with their PCs, be it at home or work. Shouldnt such a partner have both the look and brains to complement your own personality What does a dull, boxy contraption say about its user

Thats the marketing thrust. Its about fashion sensibility as much as about personality reflection. In the US and European markets, where users replace their machines every 12 months, this approach holds vast potential. While the average PC price is just $600 (about Rs 25,000), the design-sensitive consumer is fine paying almost double for an attractive model. And the US market, which accounted for one-fourth of the 250 million units sold worldwide in 2007, is leading the curve on this.

However, this good-looks-high-price tack doesnt quite work in price-sensitive markets like India and China. But since India, with an annual offtake of 7 million, and China with 33 million PC units (the formers installed base is about 20 million and the latters is 100 million, against a global figure of about one billion PCs) together hold about 16% share of the world market, global players cannot ignore buyers in these countries. Here, mass customisation will have to take care of demand for sexier PCs.

Dell is selling a desktop PC exclusively for Chinese consumers. It consumes less power and is quieter. In India, Lenovo joined hands with Walt Disney to introduce Power Rangers Mystic Force-themed desktops for children. These are examples of customised design.

Design makes for differentiation. Given the existential crisis faced by PCs, what with mobile phones stealing their functions, the only hope is to defy commoditisation. The PC shouldnt end up as a potato.

The writer is a technology market analyst. These are his personal views. Email: rr_thakur@yahoo.com