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Speeds and feeds take a backseat to tech fashion

People are less obsessed with processor speeds and pixels, and more interested in the overall look and feel of digital devices, says a design expert at GigaOm's Roadmap conference.

The IBM PC and the iPad Air. CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- In the old days of computing, with the exception of Apple in the Steve Jobs eras, design was mostly an afterthought. Computers were sold on the merits of their speeds, feeds, and cost. Like the first automobiles, you could have your choice of colors as long as they were black or white, or beige. Those days are long gone, and the underlying technology is fading into the background as digital gear enters the realm of fashion.

The success of the design-challenged computers of the 20th century was propelled forward by the force of Moore's Law, said John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, speaking here at GigaOm's Roadmap 2013 conference. Moore's Law predicts the doubling of processor transistors every 18 months and the descending price per transistor in tandem. In the glow of Moore's Law, "more was always better," Maeda said. Every 18 months, consumers could be assured that the box of parts that made up the computer would be faster, better, smaller, and cost about the same or less, and just as boring to gaze upon.

In Maeda's view, technology is becoming less important, and design more visible and important. "With good design less equals more," he said. "It started with the iPod. Now we can buy as much or as little tech as we want. Less equals more because design balances the desire for technology and the utility of technology. Therefore, technology is now less important. It makes design more visible and helps to balance between wanting more and less."

Design has become more visible and important in selling products, especially for mobile devices and the emerging wearable category. Consumers are less obsessed with processor speeds and communications protocols, and more interested in the look of a phone or tablet and how it feels in the hand. Design stretches across the overall user experience, from the beveled, machined edges to the fonts, icons, and crispness of the screen.

As digital technology is woven deeper into the fabric of life, speeds and feeds are being superseded by the "feel" -- the tactile experience of the device as well as the usability of the operating system and apps. It's about the fashion statement, rather than a bake-off competition of gigahertz and pixels. Apple has proven that the feel of a tablet in the hand and its look can command a premium price.

That said, smartphones and tablets are taking advantage of the ongoing march of Moore's Law. When Apple, Samsung, and others roll out their new products before the press, time is reserved to call out the speedy processors, tiny sensors, screen resolution, and storage options. Buyers know that the next version will be faster and more powerful, and even cheaper, but they don't have many purchase decisions to make. If you want a tablet, you just need to select how much storage, what color, Wi-Fi-only or with a cellular option. Those decisions are secondary to having an affiliation or emotional connection with a brand and ecosystem and a preference for look and feel of the device.

"Technology enables, but design establishes," said Robert Brunner, a former director of industrial designer at Apple and the founder of the design firm Ammunition. "It's always about the thing and what it does."