PC Makers Take A Stylish Turn To Tackle Apple Pink, Spotted Laptops Aimed at New Buyers; Designers Rule at Dell By ROBERT A. GUTH, JUSTIN SCHECK and DON CLARK January 4, 2008; Page A1 Personal computer buyers often ask questions about technical features such as hard drives and microprocessors. Ken Musgrave hopes to inspire a different kind of customer query: "Does that come in pink?" Mr. Musgrave, an executive in Dell Inc.'s design group, is trying to inject a sense of style into the company's PCs, with new shapes, sizes and colors. One of its notebooks, the Inspiron, does come in pink -- not to mention blue, red, black, green, white, yellow and brown. Spurred in part by the success of Apple Inc.'s innovative products, as well as a consumer shift toward notebook computers, PC makers have begun a radical overhaul of their machines' appearance. They're racing to replace boring boxes with sexy silhouettes that will differentiate their products, entice new buyers and command higher prices. In the process, they're hoping to compensate for factors over which they have little control, such as software options. Unlike Apple, famous for its easy-to-use operating system and other original programs, PC makers largely rely on Microsoft Corp. for the underlying software. And that company's latest version of Windows, called Vista, has been panned by some reviewers, despite healthy sales. The new focus on looks -- underscored by exhibitors at the Consumer Electronics Show, which opens Sunday in Las Vegas -- is forcing PC makers to re-think how they manufacture, whom they hire, how they advertise products, and where they sell them. Why all the action now? Though PC sales are surging throughout emerging economies, PC makers need new ways to spur consumer demand in the U.S. and other mature markets. By wooing buyers who care little about technical features, they hope to better tailor PCs to specific users -- including women, students, PC gamers and sports fans. It won't be easy. Producing new shapes and materials can raise costs and require tricky changes to production lines. Dell, which introduced its painted Inspiron laptops last summer, initially ran into problems with dust contamination that delayed shipments and angered customers. Moreover, it's unclear if most consumers will pay a premium for style. Companies that focus too much on fashion over function could end up with costly misses as trendy designs fall out of favor with fickle consumers. "It's a very dangerous route to go," says Sohrab Vossoughi, founder and president of Ziba Design, which has designed PC prototypes for Intel. "Things go up, and things go down." A possible pitfall, notes Mr. Vossoughi, is misinterpreting the lessons of Apple's success, which is hardly based on design alone. Rather, Apple's forte has been to create synergies among its hardware, software and retail stores in order to make its cool machines more au courant and simpler to use. 'Wow Factor' But for customers like Glenn Pingol, who works in in-flight services for United Airlines, looks do matter. The 40-year-old says he doesn't hesitate to shell out more money for a machine that blends better with his home décor. "I have a PC as well, but I find Macs more distinctive," says Mr. Pingol, who was recently eyeing the new iMac desktop at the downtown San Francisco Apple store. "It's the wow factor, and PCs just can't master that." Forrester Research, which has extensively surveyed consumers' computing habits, issued a report last June heralding a new "age of style" in the PC market. It concluded that more attractive models could command $150 to $250 more per machine. PC vendors also hope to emulate Apple's healthy profitability, which is at least partly due to the higher prices it commands on some Mac models. The company reported a 33.6% gross profit margin in its fiscal fourth quarter ended Sept. 29. Dell, by comparison, reported an 18.5% gross margin in its fiscal third quarter, which ended Nov. 2. Hewlett-Packard Co., which leads PC sales globally, is offering notebooks embossed with black and silver dragons. Dell, synonymous with cookie-cutter corporate PCs, has developed a flat-panel monitor that floats in a sheet of tempered glass. Lenovo Group Ltd., best known for the ThinkPad laptops popular for business users, this week is introducing a consumer notebook line called IdeaPad that features frameless displays and red, black and blue cases with raised and woven textures. Sony's Vaio line now includes "eco edition" notebooks with leopard-print exteriors. The company introduced a pink model about two-and-a-half years ago, and since then says it has sold more Vaios in pink -- popular with young women -- than any other hue. "There are certain colors that appeal to certain segments of the market," says Sony Senior Vice President Mike Abary. Worried About Fingerprints At H-P, executives debated whether to adopt a black lacquer finish on its Pavilion line of notebooks. Some were skeptical that people would want to buy a product that gets covered in oily fingerprints, recalls Stacy Wolff, the PC maker's director of notebook design. But a series of focus groups in 2005 showed that potential consumers still preferred the high gloss, despite the fingerprint issue. H-P's designers like to talk about "how our designs read" and ask themselves, "What are some of the elements that have an emotional connection?" Mr. Wolff says. Figuring that a black finish might seem too masculine for some users, he has been trying to appeal to women with lighter-colored models in white and silver. During most of the industry's 30-year history, PC makers didn't worry much about style. A bigger challenge was boosting technical performance and wringing costs from suppliers of standard components like computer cases, circuit boards and chips. Technology also posed limits: Chips and other components that generate heat required cooling fans and imposed limits on miniaturization. By the 1990s PCs had become generic: a simple box -- often in beige -- paired with a matching monitor, a keyboard and mouse. Consumers have long regarded desktop PCs as such aesthetic duds that they've been known to cover them with bedsheets and saris, says Genevieve Bell, an Intel anthropologist who observes global PC usage in homes. "There is this sense of, 'Oh god, why does it have to be so ugly?'" she says. There were a few early exceptions. At Sony in the mid-1990s, a stubborn designer named Teiyu Goto forced engineers to make components fit into his strict design for a purple, magnesium-sheathed PC called the Vaio 505, which garnered industrywide attention for its sleek look. But the biggest change agent was Apple's iMac, introduced in May 1998. The unusual one-piece design, in its first iteration, sported a colorful casing in translucent turquoise and gray. The computer sold so well that competitors scrambled to improve their own designs. Apple's Steve Jobs, who in the prior year had returned to lead the company he co-founded, kept conjuring up design breakthroughs. The iMac, for example, slimmed down as cathode-ray monitors gave way to flat-panel displays. With better prices and profit margins than its competitors, Apple can simply pay suppliers for design changes such as shrinking a circuit board, says Patrick Gelsinger, an Intel senior vice president who has spearheaded its design crusade. Apple declined to comment for this article. Apple has "infused" its products with style, says Barry Goffe, director of product management at Microsoft. The company in 2001 elevated the utilitarian laptop with a PowerBook model clad entirely in titanium, a metal more frequently found in fighter airplanes. That same year, it introduced the first iPod, which transformed digital music players with features such as its smooth shape and DJ-like wheel for navigating through songs. Along the way, it made white cords a staple of the new tech-chic. Portability is also boosting the industry's style quotient. Notebook PCs, once mainly a business tool, have become a consumer favorite as prices have fallen well below $1,000. Unlike desktops, notebooks travel with their users and -- like a car or a cellphone -- have a tendency to be seen as status symbols, PC makers say. Another factor: A new generation of smaller, energy-efficient components has reduced some design obstacles such as the need for cooling fans.