I spent most of this last week at the Connecting ’07 conference in Nob Hill, San Francisco. It’s the biggest industrial design gathering in the entire world, and one thing really stuck out to me: HP’s really starting to develop some design game, and Apple’s once-market leading Mac designs are really starting to look creaky.
(Disclosure: Jump Associates works with HP, but not on the physical design of its products. We had nothing minimal involvement with the products I’m writing about here)
The Palo Alto giant’s design booth had some impressive hardware, from the giant Blackbird 002 Gaming PC down to the tiniest new iPaq handhelds (not a patch on the iPhone, but gaining ground on BlackBerry and Palm). Sticking out to me most, however, were HP’s current line of laptops. The Entertainment Notebooks with the imprint designs are what they are. I like them OK, and the new designs seem less fingerprint-intensive. But the new tablets out in the world are incredibly hot.
None more so that than the Compaq 2710, a 12.1-inch convertible laptop/tablet combination. It’s got a gorgeous brushed-metal finish, it’s 3.7 lbs, and it’s just an inch thick. The swivel action on the screen to tablet is smooth, and a magnet pulls the latch down. It basically works exactly like I want the rumored MacBook Thin to work — except that it requires a stylus and that it runs Windows.
This all points up a major consequence of Apple’s tremendous focus on the iPhone and the iPod family — the entire Mac line-up is looking dull. The iMac has a new look, but the overall form is unchanged from the version introduced in 2004. Other than the built-in iSight, the MacBook Pro line looks identical to the Aluminum PowerBooks brought out in 2003. The Mac Pro is virtually unchanged from the Power Mac G5 look introduced in 2003. The MacBook, beyond the addition of black as a color option and the widescreen, is very similar to the second-gen iBooks brought out in 2001. The Mac mini is literally unchanged since its introduction in 2005.
Steve Jobs made it clear years ago that Apple has locked in the computer models it wants to sell, refreshing them continually: Consumer Desktop, Consumer Notebook, Professional Desktop, Professional Notebook, and Mac mini. That doesn’t mean that Apple should focus its innovation efforts in other markets. Apple has never had a more powerful opportunity to carve out additional terrain in the executive notebook market. And Apple has nothing for executives who just want a small, light device good for e-mail, the web and presentation creation. The MacBook isn’t prefessional enough. The MacBook Pro is too big.
Worst of all, Apple has the best touch interface in the world on the iPhone and the iPod touch. Why on earth hasn’t it shown up in a computer yet. A mouse-replacement USB pad for the desktops and a multi-touch enabled convertible MacBook Touch tablet would kill and grow Apple’s markets. Throw in an SSD drive, and it would be the best travel computer ever.
Meanwhile, HP is gaining on Apple’s design lead and charting its own path. Anyone else tired of Apple products in just brushed-aluminum and white plastic? The iPod and iPhone lines are leading the way in their markets. Every Mac looks like it’s been around forever.