Prolog

16 Apr 2007

Has Apple's ad campaign annoyed you? Don't get mad, get even, demands Tim Danton.

The normal phrase "unless you've been hiding in a concrete bunker for the last year, you'll have noticed the Apple adverts" doesn't quite apply. But only because I'm pretty sure Apple's marketing team has found a way to plaster up their posters in concrete bunkers. What's even more annoying than their omnipresence - other than sheer smugness, of course - is that many of the claims are so thick with spin they'd make Alastair Campbell blush.

PCs will crash, they tell us, not like ultra-reliable Macs. Well we've got five Macs in the PC Pro office, for laying out the magazine, and if I see another message about an application unexpectedly quitting then I may well have to smash the Mighty Mouse against the wall. Then there's the viruses claim: it's true that pre-Vista PCs are far more susceptible to infection than Macs, but Apple's statement that "by the end of 2005, there were 114,000 known viruses for PCs" stretches the definition of virus to breaking point.

But the adverts do highlight one thing I can't dispute: that PCs have an image problem. We all know computers are becoming commodities. Whereas ten years ago, people's prime concern was the technical specification of the system they were buying, today most will assume that the system will be fast enough for their needs. Instead, factors that will increasingly drive buying decisions are brand and style.

If we start with style, it's clear the PC industry has a huge amount to learn. For a terrifying example, take a look at www.intelchallenge.com, which will direct you to the ten "most stylish" PCs the industry is capable of inventing. These are the fruit of the challenge Intel made last September, where it offered a $1 million bounty to the PC maker that could design something sexier than the Mac mini.

The first design to hit your eyes is a wooden PC. Difficult to know where to start with this - there may be around 50 people in the UK interested in buying a wooden PC because they think it has some cachet, or perhaps to match their dining room table, but we need to wake up and smell the teak polish: a wooden PC will never be a serious mainstream competitor to the Mac mini. Most of the other designs are more sensible, but they're hardly a leap of imagination away from the current crop of compact PCs - they still look plasticky, boxy and horribly cheap.

But what made me want to bang my head against any available wall were the three designs from BICOM, ingeniously named HMS1, HMS7 and HMS8. At what point, I'm forced to ask, did adding lots of red, green and blue LEDs to different-sized black boxes become stylish? If that design had been shown to Steve Jobs, he'd have fired the team responsible.

What's most upsetting is that the industry is well aware of the problems. Four years ago, I visited Dell's Austin HQ, including a whistle-stop tour of its R&D lab. Pinned up on the wall were numerous intriguing designs that were light years away from the big black boxes people still associate with Dell. Later that day, I attended a briefing with Michael Dell where he explained that value was still the driving force behind Dell systems, but that style must be factored into that equation.

Dell, it appeared, "got it". The company understood that the market had moved on from £399 boxes, that consumers now wanted something that looked good in the office, bedroom or living room. Which must be why, four years later, Dell is selling boxes (gunmetal grey with bevelled corners!) for £399.

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