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A bit of analysis from the market and design segments.
The Beige Box Fades to Black
By STEVE LOHR
THE beige-box personal computer, the drab diehard of modern industrial
design, became a visual standard without a lot of deep thought in 1981,
when I.B.M. introduced its PC. It was functional, neutral, almost
non-design, says Lee Green, the company's current director of design.
Yet beige box it was, and bland proliferated for two decades, long after
"it was obvious they were beyond boring," Mr. Green said.
Even earlier, the Apple II in 1977 was mostly beige, and the first
cuddly Macintosh in 1984 was beige, though it was no conventional box.
Irrefutably, however, it was I.B.M. that brought the personal computer
into the mainstream, and the industry — except for Apple — followed its
lead in industrial design, or the lack of it. The companies that rose in
I.B.M.'s wake — Compaq, Dell, Gateway and others — were aptly termed
But now the beige-box desktop PC seems headed toward extinction at last.
The changeover has evolved gradually, along with the ways people think
about their computers, but the pace is quickening as more and more PC
makers abandon beige.
Dell has moved from beige to black for all of its desktop machines.
Hewlett-Packard had shifted to shades of gray by 1997 and has since
settled on silver and dark gray. I.B.M. introduced its first black
desktop PC in 1996 and completed its move to black in 2000. Last month
Compaq announced that it was converting its consumer desktop PC's from
beige, with some color panels, to black-and-silver designs. Next week,
Gateway plans to introduce a series of desktop models with a non-beige
color scheme. A safe bet: it will be dark gray or black.
Beige desktops may be headed for the design dustbin, following the lead
of notebook computers years ago, but dark gray and black are the new
conformity. It scarcely qualifies as a deep insight that things often
look better in black, thinking back at least to Coco Chanel's original
little black dress of 1926, if not before.
PC designers say that as black attire has became more commonplace beyond
New York and Los Angeles, it has made black acceptable for mainstream
PC's. Until recently, the designers say, market research had shown that
many people regarded black as polarizing and extreme.
Black is certainly an improvement over beige. Perhaps the shift is just
the caboose in a trend of computers' following fashion.
"The death of the beige box is really the tip of the iceberg," said Paul
Saffo, a director at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif.,
and a student of computer design. "Computers of all kinds — desktops,
notebooks, hand-helds, MP3 players and cellphones — are embedding
themselves deeper and deeper into our lives, and one of the things they
have to do is dress better."
Manufacturers have come to realize that given the relentless pressure on
PC prices, color and design might be a way to get noticed in a tough
market. Besides, ignoring appearances could spell trouble when a rival
has decided that design matters.
Sony entered the PC business with a consumer electronics mindset,
adopting a purple-and-gray palette for its Vaio models. But the real
innovator in computer design and the use of color has been Apple since
Steven P. Jobs returned to the company in 1997. First came the one-piece
iMac, introduced in 1998 in a translucent blue and white and released
later in a selection of fruit colors. The rest of the industry derided
the iMacs as "Life-Savers," but then several companies ineptly tried to
echo Apple's design, mostly by slapping colored panels onto conventional
That trend already seems spent. But this year Apple introduced another
striking iMac desktop design: a flat-panel screen on a hinged silver
strut connected to a white dome that houses the computer's processor and
storage. Jonathan Ive, the company's director of design, minces no words
in explaining why Macs look so different from other personal computers.
"This industry generally has been creatively bankrupt," he said.
For Mr. Ive and Mr. Jobs, that position is both a heartfelt belief and a
marketing tactic. Not only design but also technology sets Apple apart
from the rest of the industry, with its Macintosh operating system and
Power PC microprocessor offering ramparts against the onslaught of
Microsoft's Windows and Intel's microchip, known as Wintel. A recent
Apple advertisement read: "If you're an accountant, you're most likely
surrounded by beige Wintel boxes. But if you work in nearly every
creative field, you most likely use a Mac."
Industrial designers at other computer companies admire Apple's work.
Yet they insist that its rarefied approach is a luxury that Apple can
afford only because it is a niche company accounting for less than 5
percent of worldwide PC sales.
In computing, the term "standard" is typically applied to a technology,
in software or hardware. Those standards, particularly Intel's
microchip, have become grist for economists and antitrust lawyers, who
explain the dominance of such technologies with sophisticated language
like "network effects," "path dependencies" and "increasing returns
Explaining an industrial design standard is more subjective. But the
persistence of the beige-box PC standard, and its eventual decline, has
its own logic of economics, habit and fashion. Beige PC's arrived in
offices in the 1980's, when the management fashion was to scorn
hierarchy and extol the virtues of teamwork and a more egalitarian
workplace. Japan's teamlike corporate organizations appeared to be
winning the economic footrace. Some Silicon Valley companies had
abandoned private offices in favor of cubicles with shoulder-high beige
So beige PC's fit in. No matter that time and common sense would make
such gestures toward democracy in the workplace the stuff of
Dilbertesque satire. The beige-box PC was well entrenched and difficult
to displace, if often bemoaned. Most PC's were used in business, and
purchasing managers wanted office equipment to be standardized to reduce
costs and limit employee complaints. "In business, they don't want the
new thing looking different than the old thing," said Mike Stinson, a
Gateway vice president.
PC makers are mainly packagers of disk drives, chips and other parts
from outside suppliers. Beige was the unshakable standard for the East
Asian suppliers of "drive modules" for floppy disks, CD-ROM's and Zip
drives. It was only in the last few years, said Steve Gluskoter,
director of industrial design for Dell, that the company's market share
was large enough that it would not have to pay a higher price for black
housings on the drive modules.
The most important force in the demise of beige has been a gradual shift
among users toward perceiving these machines as personal computers. Well
into the 1990's, according to marketing and focus-group research
conducted by PC makers, most people still regarded a personal computer
as another piece of office equipment, like a water cooler or a
wastebasket. "It was not something people related their personality to,"
said Randall Martin, a designer at Compaq.
The shift began with laptop and notebook computers, which people carried
around with them and took home, even if a company bought them. Notebooks
abandoned beige first, in part because the beige yellowed and became
dirty with fingerprints. But the notebook crowd also preferred other
colors. Home desktop users "want to get away from beige because it is
associated with work," said Tom Anderson, a PC marketing executive at
David Kelley, the founder of Ideo, recalled that his industrial design
firm had created some colorful computers over the years, including
sculptured purple-and-gray models for Silicon Graphics. "But it didn't
make a difference," he said. "People weren't ready yet to consider it a
"But that is what is changing now," added Mr. Kelley, who is a professor
at Stanford University. "As the computer moves into the personal space,
then these subjective things like color and design begin to matter."
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