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Tricks of the design trade

CNET's Michael Kanellos says that although technical sophistication continues to grow, computer product design--and how it appeals to consumers--remains a crapshoot.  

When Hewlett-Packard was fashioning its e-PC, a compact, no-frills desktop computer for corporate buyers, beta testers had a surprise for the machine's designers: No CD-ROM drive, no sale.

Early prototypes of the e-PC did not include CD-ROMs, a design decision that neatly matched the system's bare-bones configuration. The e-PC could be opened only with a rivet gun at the factory, thus making memory upgrades impractical. A key also locked in the hard drive to protect against data theft.

In tests, users didn't complain about the lock-down drive or the hermetic case design. Both features subsequently got integrated into the final design of the computer. Instead, they griped about the absence of a CD-ROM drive, a surprising complaint considering that CD-ROMs were not being much used then.

IT managers "felt like second-class citizens," said Eric Chaniot, product marketing manager for HP's business desktop division and the father of the e-PC. They said, "We need a CD because (people) won't believe it is a real computer," he said.

HP put one in. Sales took off.

Although technical sophistication continues to grow at an exponential rate, product design remains a crapshoot. Three years ago, when futurists talked of wearable computing technologies, they described high-powered, low-energy processors and drives embedded in glasses. The wearable computing platform has arrived, but it's called a belt. It's where the BlackBerry goes.

In the last decade, companies tried convincing people that they needed more powerful PCs to run fancy applications like 3D spreadsheets or voice-activated data-mining programs. Instead, the world upgraded to pirate out-of-print Foghat singles on the Web.

Analogous twists of fate likely await some of the technologies coming on the market. Intel, for instance, will come out soon with "Ink Messaging," which lets people send handwritten notes across instant messaging networks. Asian markets will likely adopt it first, partly because of the difficulty of typing Asian characters.

But where will the application find a home? At corporations hoping to better integrate communications networks, or at the dog track, where every second lost waiting in line for the betting window counts?

Intel and Israel's are also coming out with multi-angle video for the Web. How will panoptic video be used? To replay sporting events.

Voice activation isn't here yet, but mark my words, there will be only one breakthrough application: the clapper ("Clap on...Clap off...The Clapper") notebook.

The tension between the technically feasible and commercially desirable derives largely from the difference between science and psychology. Science follows geometric, progressive formulas. Things always get better. In 1790, Joseph-Marie Jacquard discovered that looms could be programmed to follow sets of pre-selected commands. Two hundred eleven years later, computing power dominates the world.

By contrast, behavior remains relatively constant. It wasn't that long ago that most of us studied goat entrails to predict the future or believed that sound community planning started with a few witch burnings. In 1790, French revolutionaries tried to create an egalitarian society by renaming the months of the year. They also believed diseases could be cured with magnets. In light of the "Ginger" craze, the olden days just don't strike me as especially weird.

When it comes to product design, the idea is to take technological advances and wrap them in immutable human instincts about fear, prestige, conformity, convenience and beauty. Appeal to the base instincts, and you've got yourself a success.

Ignore them and you risk failure. Videoconferencing failed the first time around, according to many, because of a lack of bandwidth. Although that problem has been conquered, shyness remains. According to one researcher, people refused to accept incoming video calls. Instead, they'd pretend to be occupied, hang up, and call back about a minute later.

The PC-TV? Compaq and Gateway both tried it, but when the family got tired of watching dad exchange e-mails with his boss, these products died. Later this year, a number of PC-like TV attachments will reach the market. But this time around, the PC will be subservient; consumers are going to use it as a music/video/games vault for the TV and as a platform for Web-produced films.

The groovy PC enjoys a singularly checkered career. Apple had a hit with the iMac, but partly because of sentimentality. Consumers liked the shape but also bought into the ad campaign. Some also wanted to see an industrial icon recover.

On their own, zany shapes were dull. The Gateway Astro, the Gateway Profile, Dell's WebPC, and the cube from Apple have all floundered.

The e-PC narrowly missed a coloration faux pas. Chaniot's wife insisted that he not bring another boring beige box to the market. Following his muse, he brought a prototype in blue to Japan.

People treated it as if it had rickets. In Tokyo, "everything is beige, white or metallic," including the color scheme at the airport, he relayed. HP kept the color boxes for the U.S. Crapshoot? Make that crapshoot factorial.