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Commentary: Color counts, but ergonomics matter more

Increasingly, customers are focusing on much more than color or the styling of the box as an important part of the selection process.

As processing speed and power become less important variables for PCs, computer makers can no longer differentiate themselves solely on the basis of delivering the latest chip the fastest. Dell Computer's unveiling today of the redesign of its desktop PCs is the latest indication of this trend.

Dell has been very successful at differentiating its products from its competitors on price, based on a very efficient business and distribution model. However, Dell has not traditionally focused much attention on design and ergonomics.

Other PC manufacturers,

See news story:
Dell boots beige with new desktop PC design
including Apple, as well as more direct Dell competitors--IBM, Compaq Computer, and Hewlett-Packard--have released systems with superior design and ergonomics. Increasingly, customers are focusing on ergonomics as an important part of the selection process.

Ergonomic design, however, means much more than the color or styling of the box. The new Dell systems are redesigned to provide easier access to internal parts, color-coded cables between system parts, and fewer screws to ease removal of key system components--all of which results in lower maintenance and management costs.

Furthermore, the reduced size of the case and other features make the system less intrusive on a customer's desktop. Finally, these changes will also help Dell further reduce its manufacturing and shipping costs. These are all areas where good ergonomics really pay off.

Ergonomic issues also are important off the desktop. Dell announced that its new laptops will include built-in 802.11B wireless LAN technology--following a similar announcement by IBM earlier this month. Once office buildings and campuses have wireless LANs installed, this approach will allow better mobility.

For instance, people attending meetings can easily remain connected via the wireless LAN, not only to the corporate network but also to the Internet. Hotels and other travel industry businesses can offer wireless connectivity as a service to attract business customers.

Although ergonomics should not be the only factor that customers look at to make computer purchasing decisions, it certainly should be one of those factors, along with price, reliability, and technical considerations. Color and appearance also have a place in the overall buying decision, to the extent that they can contribute to a more cheerful office and therefore happier employees.

Better design should be more than skin-deep, however--it should also make repair and maintenance easier and less expensive, reducing cost of ownership.

The bottom line is that, as systems from various companies become more similar inside, the ergonomics of the system--how it is used and how it can be serviced by IT staff--becomes an increasingly important buying factor. Dell is moving to catch up to its rivals on this front.

META Group analysts Peter Burris, David Cearley, Val Sribar, William Zachmann, and Jack Gold contributed to this article.

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