July 21, 1999 1:55 PM PDT

PC makers green (and red, blue) with iMac envy

Hoping to replicate Apple's colorful iMac success, PC makers will enter the fashion electronics market in earnest this fall with new lines emphasizing look, shape, and style.

Although these computers remain under wraps, general design themes are emerging, executives and analysts say. Consumers will likely see PCs that are smaller than current desktop or tower versions, a greater variety of colors, and even possibly computers manufactured from materials such as chrome or aluminum, rather than plastic.

One of the first events for the fall fashion season will be Intel's Developer Forum, which kicks off August 31 in Palm Springs, California. The company has used the conference to show off stylized PC prototypes before, but this year unusual PCs headed for volume production are being promised.

"You will see a lot of pre-production units from U.S. players and APAC [Asian-Pacific manufacturers]" emphasizing color and design, said Pat Gelsinger, general manager of the desktop products group at Intel.

Some of those systems will hit store shelves in the subsequent months, Gelsinger added. Right now, companies are trying to keep secret the "unique physical IDs" of their machines, he said.

The focus on style, of course, is the direct result of the success Apple has found with the iMac. Before the iMac, Apple commanded only around 2 percent of the consumer desktop market, according to ZD Infobeads.

Since then, Apple's retail share has bounced up to close to 7 percent. Although financial analysts are split on the company's long-term prospects, Apple last week reported third-quarter earnings of $203 million, an amount larger than predicted.

And the hits may keep on coming. At the Macworld trade show in New York today, Apple released the iBook, a two-tone notebook with a rubber edge and an automatic cord winder resembling that of a vacuum cleaner.

While much attention has been paid to the iMac, standard PC makers have mostly kept the same designs and have been beating each other up in price wars.

PC makers have released computers this year that depart from the "beige box" standard, but in limited fashion. Gateway, among others, recently released an "all-in-one" desktop that fuses a PC and a flat-panel monitor into one unit. Sony has also experimented with color. Other designers have displayed prototype computers.

The urge to improvise, however, is picking up and being encouraged by Intel.

"The industry is ready for fashion PCs," said Stephen Dukker, chief executive of Emachines. "Intel has been aggressive in trying to promote the concept."

While the ultimate look and feel of these systems remains to be seen, size and color tend to be the aspects that PC makers are focusing on most, said Roger Kay, an analyst with International Data Corporation.

"In the fall, you're likely to see more of the newer desktop [designs] come out," he said. "There seems to be a lot more emphasis on 'smalls,' all-in-ones, and all-in-ones with flat panels."

Shrinking the size of computers is coming about through adoption of smaller motherboards, Kay said. PC makers are also dropping little-used legacy technology, such as ports based on the "ISA" standard. Smaller motherboards and fewer ports mean smaller computer innards, which in turn means smaller PCs.

As for chassis innovation, expect to see colors "between Apple and ordinary," Kay said, as well as the use of textures such as brushed aluminum or chrome. In the future, PC makers could even start to think of improving other aspects of PC design, such as making keyboards that sound and feel more luxurious and less utilitarian.

"What you're seeing is more adventurous designs," he said.

 

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