Fashion Meets Technology: Welcome to the Future of PCs

Fashion Meets Technology: Welcome to the Future of PCs

These days, you see as many laptops in coffee shops as you do boardrooms. As such, consumers are more and more looking to make a fashion statement with their PCs, and Microsoft is spotlighting the trend this week during the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show.

REDMOND, Wash. - Three icons of the fashion world recently stepped out of the world of couture and catwalks to judge another sort of fashion show. Like most fashion shows, they paid close attention to the different designs colors, curves and overall aesthetic appeal of the models. Some models were slim and square, others were more rounded. Some were clad in leather, and a few were lacquered. It sounds a bit odd, but in this case, the three “fashionistas” weren’t judging clothing, they were judging computers in a high-tech fashion show staged at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The PC industry is paying more attention to the aesthetics of their products this year as consumers are increasingly asking for more stylish, unique PC options to fit their lifestyle. To highlight the increasingly important role that fashion is playing in PCs, Microsoft asked three fashion industry leaders to pick their favorite PC designs. The three judges were Nigel Barker, top fashion photographer and a judge on the hit TV show, “America’s Next Top Model,” hip-hop trend setter and fashion innovator Tony Shellman and A-list fashion stylist and entrepreneur Misa Hylton. After considering 12 of the most stylish Windows-based PCs to hit the market in the last year, they each chose a favorite.

The judges’ choices are:

The Sony LT, a 22-inch, wall-mountable HDTV with a transparent glass border and a VAIO PC tucked into its side panel.

The Signature PC from Ego Lifestyle, which has a rounded design resembling a lady’s handbag and is available in leather, chrome, titanium and lacquer finishes.

The Haier Notebook VM, which has its screen and keyboard connected via a rotary spindle that allows users to pull the screen both upward and forward, and has a sports-car-quality paint job.

The three favorites, along with the several other high-style PCs, are on display in Microsoft’s booth at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), taking place this week in Las Vegas.

The Age of Style

Market research firm Forrester Research has predicted that the period between now and 2012 will be the “Age of Style” for the consumer PC industry, with manufacturers weaving design considerations into every aspect of their business, including research and development, brand management, marketing and retailing.

“Fashion is how we express our identities,” says Nadine Kano, marketing director for experience computing at Microsoft. “Style is everywhere today. Look at house wares – everything from potato peelers to handheld vacuums have been infused with style. In the technology world, we’ve already seen cell phones reach the status of fashion accessory. The shift we’re seeing in consumer PCs is just as inevitable.

“Product differentiation in the PC industry is getting harder and harder to achieve based on technical specs,” says Kano. “People have always wanted power, speed and reliability, but these days they can get comparable disk space, processor speed, and RAM from many PC manufacturers. To get something unique, people are now looking for style.”

Lessons from Motor City

The automobile industry has known this for many years and today offers consumers a dazzling array of shapes, sizes, colors, functionality, and comfort and performance options, as well as the ability to personalize the cars they purchase. In the language of marketing theory, automakers have learned to “empower consumers’ self-expression.”

What automakers have done extremely well, through both their product designs and their advertising, is engage the buyer’s psyche and respond to their lifestyle in order to create an overall experience that’s about more than horsepower, leather seats and CD players. The PC industry is now headed in the same direction.

“OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are really rising to this challenge. Some of their designs are quite sophisticated,” notes Kano. “We’ve definitely moved beyond the days when, to paraphrase Henry Ford, you could get a PC in any color you wanted, as long as it was beige.”

In addition to a variety of color choices, from pink to brown and every hue in between, new PCs are coming in a variety of materials, textures, shapes, sizes and form factors. And matching accessories, like mice, carrying cases, and music players, are becoming standard.

“People are willing to pay more for a product that expresses their personal style,” says Kano.

Fashionable Software?

“Painting a PC a different color is a superficial interpretation of fashion,” says Kano. “Fashion is about lifestyle as well as aesthetics. Go back to the example of house wares – the latest kitchen gadgets aren’t just colorful, they’re ergonomic as well. Microsoft’s hardware partners are focused on more than just shape and color. As they work on their next designs, they are thinking deeply about how people use their PCs.”

Microsoft is thinking that way, too. The company has done quite a lot of work on the User Interfaces of Windows and Office, not just to make the software look better, but to focus it on the types of tasks that people are trying to complete in their everyday lives. Tasks like editing photos, chatting with friends or creating home videos can have a strong emotional component.

“The PC experience is becoming more about the person and less about the technology. Cars are not about engines, but about driving and going places. PCs should not be about ‘speeds and feeds’ but about getting work done, preserving and sharing memories, and communicating with friends and family. You show most people a PC ad that lists specs like processor speed, video card RAM, and so forth, and they have no idea what it means. But if you tell them they watch TV on it – now that means something to them.”

The design of hardware, software, and services is converging around the computing experiences that people are seeking. For example, for people who use their PCs for entertainment, media-centric offerings come with remote controls, large, TV-like screens, ample storage space, and offer DVD download services. The Media Center feature in Windows Vista is navigable via remote control and is designed to be viewed from a distance, the way people watch TV.

How people use their PCs is affected by where they use them. When you put a PC in your living room, for example, you want it to enhance your home’s style, not detract from it with bulkiness and clutter. That’s why we’re seeing an emergence of sleek all-in-one form factors, with wireless keyboards and mice and minimal cables, says Kano.

People use laptops when they are on the move, often in public spaces. They need great mobility features, like easy wireless networking and great battery life, but they also want to make a statement with the look of the PC they are carrying.

Kano sums up the situation this way: “Fashion is about who I am and what I do. The more personal my machine feels to me, the more attached I become to it and the more loyal a customer I will be. The best way for PC makers to attract buyers in this extremely competitive landscape is to appeal to people on a personal level, and fashion is a very personal thing.”