Fwd: The Beige Box Fades to Black

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Thu Apr 18 2002 - 15:32:39 BST

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    Subject: Fwd: The Beige Box Fades to Black 
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    A bit of analysis from the market and design segments.

    - Wade


    The Beige Box Fades to Black



    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
    desktop machines.

    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
    personal thing."

    "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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