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A Case for Color

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Apple's recent iBook announcement has reinvigorated discussion of Apple's hardware designs, with a focus on Apple's use of color, although Apple isn't the only computer maker to ship machines in non-neutral colors. SGI ships bruised-looking graphics workstations, IBM promotes a charcoal look in its Aptiva series, and Steve Jobs's own all-black NeXT systems got the ball rolling a decade before the iMac.

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By presenting a range of distinctive choices, the various flavors of the iMac - and now the iBook - are the first personal computers to put color at the forefront of a computer purchasing decision. Buying a computer used to involve consideration of price, speed, capability, capacity, and expandability. Now, the mere fact that options are available makes it impossible to buy an iMac or an iBook without considering color. The rest of the Macintosh industry - indeed, a variety of industries - are eagerly following suit.

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Does color matter? Is it an important criterion for a sophisticated device that could scarcely have been imagined ten years ago? Is it an indicator that computers - like telephones and automobiles - have become commodities distinguished largely by appearance and experience? Or is color merely the loudest stunt Apple could pull to gain attention and, thereby, to re-establish itself as a successful company?

Monoculturosis -- Until the iMac, many computer users based purchasing decisions on price and specifications - as long as the job gets done, who cares what the machine looks like? And besides, flashy designs just drive up development costs. Thus, conventional wisdom held that little effort need go into industrial design: dull grey or beige boxes do just fine.

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This perception obscures the fact that the design of "boring" computers is deliberate. Any cultural anthropologist will tell you that business design sense changes slowly. Business culture in many ways minimizes (and even erases) differences between individuals, cultures, and societies. Business emphasizes commonality in the marketplace - the trade of goods or services is what's important, not the individuality of the participants. When traditional businessmen need a suit, their choices of cut, color, and styling are restricted, with personal expression largely limited to ties. Personal appearance and grooming are similarly circumscribed: businessmen generally aren't permitted long hair, earrings, or visible tattoos, while jewelry is limited to wristwatches. Businesswomen - themselves recent admittees to the business world - face more complicated but similarly restrictive choices.

Computer designs have followed similar conservative patterns partly to fit into the artificial monoculture of the business world. In addition, desktop beige exudes neutrality, a blandness necessitated by the need to put one type of object - the computer - into any number of physical environments.

What a Difference Difference Makes -- Since the inception of the beige box, the economics and market for computers have changed. Originally expensive, arcane tools for specialized operations, personal computers gradually became easier to use, less expensive, and more integrated into everyday activities. Eventually, personal computers became luxury items for individual use, and - particularly with sub-$1,000 PCs - information and entertainment appliances within the reach of consumers.

Apple has always existed at the periphery of this process. Apple arguably invented the personal computer market in the late 1970s with the Apple II. Despite successes in education and amongst individual users, Apple systems never dominated the business world, where they faced IBM, the megalithic manifestation of business culture itself - which, naturally, required its employees to wear virtually identical suits.

With the Macintosh design, Apple spurned business culture. With its distinctive face-like facade, the original Macintosh offered no conformity or neutrality: it refused to blend in. Although Macintosh designs became more PC-like over the years (particularly as Apple's market share fell and as the company tried to court the business market), Apple continued to display flurries of design individualism with products like the slim Macintosh LC, the original PowerBooks, and even one-shots like the Macintosh TV and 20th Anniversary Macintosh. Apple systems also sported unique features and new technologies that contributed to and reinforced the loyalty of Macintosh users. Design remains a major part of why we maintain relationships with our Macs, such as our ever-faithful SE/30s.

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Macs have always been different, and using a Mac has always been as much of a personal statement as it is a tool for getting work done. But in the last few years, Macs had become easy to ignore.

Color Screams -- When Apple revealed the "Think Different" slogan, the company was posting substantial financial losses and even die-hard Macintosh fans admitted Apple was in trouble. Whatever was the "same" wasn't going to work: in addition to putting Steve Jobs at the helm and formulating a semi-coherent operating system strategy, Apple needed a bigger idea of what represented "different" for their products.

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That idea, like it or not, is unique design and color. It's simple, easily understood by anyone able to compare the Mac to another computer visually, easily lends itself to recognizable advertisements and promotions, and once again makes the Macintosh impossible to ignore.

If the iMac were released as a compact consumer machine with traditional platinum casing, would it be the huge success that it is today? No; the design and the colors pushed iMac above the competition because it grabbed attention. The sale of nearly two million iMacs over the past year can't be accounted for by their speedy G3 processors or by their pricing, especially when competing against much cheaper PCs. And it proves the economics of the computer market have changed to permit significant development costs for a low-cost consumer machine rather than only for high-end models: more consumers are buying computers.

Good advertisers take novel ideas and run with them, which is exactly what Apple and Chiat/Day did by blanketing billboards, buses, and magazine spreads with the iMac: just the appearance of a translucent Bondi blue and white gumdrop computer was enough to grab attention. Brightly colored iMacs on a white background have been the basis for astonishingly simple ads: an overhead shot of five fruity iMacs above the caption "Yum" doesn't indicate even that the multi-hued objects are computers, but does provoke intrigue.

The advantage of standout design cascades to other areas of advertising, such as catalog retailers and in-store displays. In the past, these areas used color as surrounding elements to spice up what often amounted to flat beige boxes. Now, an iMac can be the center of attention on its own. Media tie-ins work even more elegantly. When the television camera pans across the desk of your favorite sitcom character, viewers don't just see a computer - they see an iMac and understand that it's an Apple product, not a run-of-the-mill PC. In this age of incessant advertising, being different stands out.

Apple's translucent coloring also gives the impression an iMac or an iBook is a toy, which turns out to be good. People want to touch them, play with them, lift them to see they're as sturdy as the handles suggest - they aren't afraid of this complicated piece of technology. That appeal has spread to peripherals and add-on products, from laser printers to game controllers to Ethernet hubs. These are machines that people recommend to their parents, grandparents, children, and friends.

Painted Black -- All this is not to say that color is here for the long run or is appropriate in all situations. Colorful translucent plastics are ripe for being emblematic of late 1990s style. ("What were we thinking?" we'll no doubt say, echoing anyone who has looked recently at styles from the 1970s.) The colored Mac styling is bound to go away fairly quickly because it's comparatively loud; loud make a splash, which is exactly what Apple wanted, but tends to lack staying power. In fact, we're already hearing rumblings about the colors of the Power Macintosh G3s not being appropriate for some business environments, and the iBook has taken similar flak. If Apple wants to gain the good graces of the business market, they'll have to figure out a Macintosh design compromise that fits in while standing out, much as wearing an expensive Italian suit might do for an individual.

However, for now Apple has met the needs of their primary customers. The iMac and iBook are flashy and cheap, and work well for education and home users. The blue and white Power Macintosh G3s combine power and innovative looks for the creative professional market. And the PowerBook G3 Series offers plenty of functionality in a sleek black case, albeit one that's undoubtedly the next in line for a makeover.

But the success of the iMac will impact products from other computer makers. We're beginning to see announcements of computers that look suspiciously like the original iMac, such as the eMachines eOne and E-Power system from Future Power and Daewoo Telecom (which has sparked a lawsuit from Apple). Amusingly, both products lack floppy drives.

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Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery - even if it proves to be illegal - and, in the end, consumers and the press will invariably compare anything vaguely iMac-like to the original.

The Color of Money -- We can't claim Apple's new color scheme is solely responsible for the company's impressive turnaround during the past two years. It's no accident that these machines are also top performers, and that Apple has managed to reduce inventory and forecast demand better. But color can't be marginalized as a superfluous gimmick - with it, Apple has recognized that the Macintosh design has always been fundamental to its success.

However, Apple also can't afford to rest on its laurels. Innovative design helped put the Macintosh on the map, and it has certainly brought the Macintosh back from what many pundits trumpeted as the grave. Apple will undoubtedly continue to mine the colored vein for some time to come, particularly for consumer-oriented computers, but the company must continue to innovate in the design space to stay ahead of the copycats and to keep the Macintosh in the public eye.

 

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