Mac Design Holding Pattern Needs to End

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compaq2710.JPG

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.

  • Jon

    Blimey Pete! Whoa boy! ;-)

    I’m just not with you at all on this one. The new designs are coming, I am sure, just give them a chance. It’s all about doing things brilliantly – even Apple have not got the resources to do everything at the same time (they have plenty on their plate at the moment with European iPhone launches and Leopard globally). So, manage people’s expectations and don’t over promise. They need to do each launch / new product, whether software or hardware brilliantly and not rush it.

    Also, look at it from a pure £££ $$$ perspective, they are not exactly struggling for success at the mo, so why update designs which are already selling and most people have not bought yet (the general Windows public).

    Yes, I want a MacBook Pro thin as much as you, it will be on the way, but I don’t think we will see it until January at MacWorld.

    As to the Compaq 2710, may I politely suggest a quick trip to the opticians? ;-) Look at the hinge! The big gap, the Hp sticker…. I don’t think people are going to be lusting after this any time soon!

  • Steve

    It seems to me that we now face a predicament. The form factors for laptops and desktops seems to be set and Apple has already refined the design down to its minimum. I for one do not want them to introduce over-design for the sake of it. All that can be done now is to change materials, improve performance, and slowly introduce the ‘touch’ technology (although I cannot see why its needed with laptops and desktops as they currently stand).

    I personally like the glossy white products. They still look futuristic.

    I wish the iMac Aluminium was offered in white.

  • Joseph

    “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.”

    The iPhone is just 4 months old. You say it as if those 4 months were 10 years. I don’t think a good implentation of an iPhone-like touch interface into a computer is as easy or obvious as your comment suggests. That’s not to say it couldn’t be done in a half-assed kind of way. But who wants Apple to do that? An enourmous amount of development will be required to implement a touch interface well. It will take time. 4 months is not a long time.

    I don’t like the HP designs very much, but as for the more general point of Macs looking old, I agree. Partly to blame for that is the iPhone itself. By comparison, the computers look so ‘3-years-ago’. The industrial design of the new iMac in particular was a dissappointment. Brushed-aluminum is tired. Apple seems to have recognized that to some extent – it phased out brushed-aluminum from OS X, iTunes, and other software. So kind of strange it chose at the same time to make brushed-aluminum more predominant in the physical design. It would have been much better to give a design-refresh to the computers along the lines of the iPhone design.

  • Matt J

    Aside from the fact that that HP looks ugly, I really don’t think Apple should try to get into the tablet market. Microsoft tried tablets. They didn’t go so well. I don’t believe I have ever seen anyone using a tablet.

  • monospace

    The non-design of apple products (simple lines, minimal, non-existent ‘extras’ etc) is what makes the design of them so amazingly classic and extremely difficult to date.
    I bought a vaio and a mac at the same time. The vaio, two years after looks like a 8086 desktop pc by now and the mac is still nice, simple and beutiful.

    the barcelona chair of Mies Van der Roche or the LeCorbusier sofa have been around for about 100 years. Still amazing designs due to their simplicity and long lasting values.

    don’t confuse minimal design with boredom. All the shiny finishes and ‘cool’ lines are just too boring..

    (at least on my book!)

  • Doug S.

    Actually, I don’t agree that the Macs look tired at all. If you’re part of the tech press, and a major part of your job is to spend time with every new gizmo that comes out, I can see how that would happen. But — and this is all the more true because Macs don’t get replaced as quickly as PCs — I think the average consumer’s experience is much different. To me, it seems like new Mac models/design concepts come and go before I even have the chance to figure out an excuse to lay out money for an upgrade. I still think Macs look great, and I’m in no particular hurry for them to change.

  • Pmoes

    Good point.
    I would be interested to have some other posters come up with enough good suggestions why Apple would bother tooling up a plant to build cost effective quantities of a device that the majority of existing and potential customers would want/need to use.
    For me, I can’t think of a single practical money making reason why I would need/want a tablet Mac.
    To read electronic newspapers on a train?
    Sketching a rough diagram?
    Holding it up for an audience to watch a Keynote?
    Apart from Doctors/nurses wanting a clipboard replacement, I don’t think there is enough demand for a device like this.
    Especially as the wintel attempts have failed to gain a foothold.
    Any other thoughts?

  • Ian T

    That’s exactly what I have been saying for the last two years. White plastic and brushed aluminum are getting tediously annoying. But I do like the slowly growing Apple design of Aluminum and Black, even though I’m really tired of aluminum.

    With Leopard, a newly designed operating system coming this friday, i bet we can expect a lot of newly designed macs for all of 2008. So save your bucks everybody, don’t buy any new macs — actually the new iMac is probably fine — before MacWorld. You’ll be happy you saved : )

  • Nick

    As a graphic designer I can tell you that every one I know in the field uses a Mac…obviosly, its industry standard. Most of those people also own Wacom tablets. While these tablets do the job, I have been patiently waiting for Apple to make a tablet computer for a long time now. Will it make sense for most people? No…but neither does the Mac Pro. A market is there for it without a doubt and for me this would be huge

  • C Rolls

    That HP is really ugly — not only that, but it has too many moving parts! I think most people want a computer that works — not a parlor trick.

  • imajoebob

    The MacBook is old? It looks very little like the iBook. The MBPro does look like the PowerBook Al, which is going on 4 years. But why change such a great design? Refresh, make it thinner, etc., but don’t replace it just because you can.

    As for the “executive” notebook, they have it in the Pro. As someone in that demographic, I’d like thinner and lighter, but the design is classy (and classic). While the MacBook design is more professional than the iBook, the keyboard is kind of odd, and the black plastic is attractive, but it’s not a high end look. Some are calling for the return of the 12″ PB, but this is not a useful executive form. Most over 40 will tell you that a 15″ screen is the minimum comfortable size. A 12″ might be fine for doing Powerpoint shows (God help us), but you can’t do reports or spreadsheets. I’d like to see an updated keyboard. Not the bizarro iMac keys, but something a little easier to read. A product(RED) might be a great addition to the Pro line. It would still be classy, and makes the user appear socially aware (does anyone say “hip” anymore?). Since this group gets a new computer every other year. needed or not (usually not), it won’t be around long enough to become dated.

    The new imac is a great refresh. The MacBook is just great. The towers industrial look is timeless. The mini/TV need a minor refresh. The only miss in a long while is the iPod classic/nano. They actually looks like older models than those replaced. I would have liked to see a sleeker, more “singular” design, where the click wheel became part of the case, not a big bullseye, and the angular front and curved back are mismatched.

    Apple’s designs may not be brand new, but they’re all contemporary and leading edge. If it ain’t broke, don’t break it (Tommy Magliozzi).

  • darcyfitzpatrick

    I wouldn’t mind so much if the casing would just hold together.

    http://there-i-go.blogspot.com

    If quality control can’t come ahead of design, then what’s the point?

  • Andrew DK

    I’m totally waiting for a thin laptop/tablet; I promised myself it’ll be the next Mac I get. And if Apple ever comes out with one, I’m positive it will have a SSD (it better!). I’m sure it will packed with wireless hardware as well.
    What I’m not sure about is if it will have 1) an optical drive (I could probably do without it) or 2) a multi-touch interface. It’s hard for me to imagine them coming out with a new computer without it, though.

  • Louis Wheeler

    Don’t fix what isn’t broken. We are looking for real improvements in function. Change for change’s sake is silly. Products evolve over time. The changes that the consumer’s want take precedence. When some PC actually gives the Mac some strong competition in looks is when Apple needs to update, not before. Usually, that is every year or two. Most Macs are years ahead of PC’s in appearance, so what’s the rush?

  • BW

    Sorry you prefer the look of these bulky, unimaginative PC laptops just becasue Apple haven’t done major re-designs in the last few years? That’s becasue Apple don’t need to. Their desktops are, well… we’ve all seen the amusing iMac vs. Dell desktop on Apple’s site. The iMac (both new and old versions) blow anything away in the PC industry right now and always have done. And for the MacBook and MacBook Pro, as far as I am aware they are still the best designs in the industry with the most hardware innovations. A lot of PC laptops still don’t have cameras built in, nor illuminating keyboards nor, for that matter, the MagSafe. Not only that but Apple laptops look sleek, modern and are perfectly designed with minimalism in mind. I haven’t seen one PC yet on my travels that remotely looks like a worthy challenger to Apple’s throne, save for the Sony Vaio’s, but we all know they are just Mac wannabe’s. If anyone can point me towards a PC (desktop or laptop) that would come anywhere close to any of Apple’s products, please feel free to prove me wrong. The designs might be years old, but as some have already said, why change such a brilliant design? At the end of the day there’s only so much you can do to improve upon perfection, and Apple seem to have done just about all the perfecting possible on their products. But hey, this is Apple and they always pull new rabbits out of the hat just when you least expect it. Bottom line, it’s only opinion based, but I don’t think there’s a single computer out there that would come close to Apple design, and even all the better ones are Apple rip-off’s anyway – see Gateway’s One, for example.

  • Tina

    True, they can’t rest on their laurels but, surely you don’t suggest that the HP pictured above is better designed? Yikes! That thing is horsey looking.

  • Martijn

    The old white G3 iBook looks so old is is fresh again… Change for no reason but change leads usually to nothing. Current iMac design is very functional and it is hard to see what is next. So far, no one has shown Computer Design 3.0, except maybe the Microsoft tabletop interface (which is neat).

    HP catching? thank heaven, I thought business users would never get something decent that looks anything else but a cheap black or fake alu hard plastic box. (have you ever seen someone stroke a Dell laptop? I’ve witnessed several people carressing my white G3 iBook.. go figure).

    Classic design is hard. Some old Bang & Olufsen models from Jakob Jensen come to mind, or some classic Vitra furniture designed by the Eames’es in the ’40s of last century.

    I guess if any computer will make it into the classic design corner, than one of the iMacs might be the one, but I would bet that the latest model has more of a chance to become a classic just for its form and function than the early bright plastic ones.

  • Steve

    The latest designs are fine, and Apple’s hardware is always far less distracting than most other PCs are because there is only one LED and no extra weird keys and keyboard layouts.

    However, I don’t like the newer designs of the laptops (though I suppose they’re over five years now). Honestly, I prefer to designs of the G4 iMacs with the computer in the base, and the Titanium PowerBook seemed to have a little more style. I like the designs of the older clamshell G3s the most, though. The PowerBook Pismo was the best PowerBook ever. I still entertain thoughts of modding one of those and putting a newer iBook inside the now-dead computer’s casing.

    Though, the MacBooks of to-day are more like smaller versions of the MacBook Pro line, complete with most of the features of those computers. Mine’s a little black one, in honor of the black G3 PowerBook, and I do swear that it thinks it’s a PowerBook.

    I do miss the 12″ format PowerBook and wish that Apple would re-release a sub-compact notebook. The MacBook is just a little bit large, and all those rumors of a 12″ NAND-flash-based sub-compact notebook are annoying when there is no actual hardware released.

  • iDave

    I think the current Apple designs fit that “classic” criteria.

    Close an iBook and all you see is smooth, polished, white plastic – none of the vents or dents or stickers or edges that Windows machines have. It’s damn classy. Just pure white goodness.

    Same with MacBook Pros: clean, elegant, smooth metal. Nothing fancy, and nothing gaudy.

    Colors might be a reasonable update. Other than that? I’ll take my “old” G4 iBook, with its consistent white and smooth finish, any day.

  • Dan

    All interesting points above. I thought I might mention the only thing I believe to be in need of some updating: the 12mm edging around the screen of the Macbook Pros and the 15mm or so around the MacBooks. Neither have changed a jot since their PPC incarnations. Other than that (and possibly thickness), hard to improve on these designs’ form and function.

  • Pete Mortensen

    Anyone who hasn’t seen a Compaq 2710 in person really shouldn’t comment without holding or touching one — it’s quite an emotional device. It’s thinner than a 12″ PowerBook or a Macbook, has a smaller trip around the screen, and no stickers from Intel or anyone else, just a nice, lasered-on logo in the lower left corner. It’s got a built-in 2-megapixel camera capable of video conferencing.

    I’m not concerned with software, just the hardware here. I was blown away by the emotional attachment I had to the physical object, while my fiancee’s new MacBook Pro isn’t hitting me at all. That’s an issu.

  • Brian

    Are you serious? That HP tablet PC looks absolutely terrible. It’s bulky, ugly, seems like everything is a moving part, and what’s with that little circle on the plastic next to that ugly rectangle. And why does HP feel the need to put like 20 rubber pads on the lid? Apple’s designs blow away any PC currently on the market, and they will continue to do so without redesigning any product on their lineup. HP is in no way “catching up” to Apple.

  • C Rolls

    An emotional device? Lame-o.

  • Matt C

    Up until last October I was a PC user and I was in the market for a laptop. Several of my friends were (and still are) Mac users, one of them owning a MacBook Pro. I spent a lot of time scouring the Internet, High Street stores and looking at all those brochures that get bundled in newspapers to find a laptop that 1) came with the performance I craved 2) had some good bundled software and 3) looked mighty good anywhere, whether at home or on the road.

    The main PC manufacturers let me down. Yes you could get high performance, no you couldn’t get any decent bundled software and they all looked like they’d been mangled by the neighbourhood rottweiler. I ended up spending ages on my friends MacBook Pro, fiddling around with all the neat pieces of software and admiring its beautifully minimalist (as someone else has already pointed out here) looks. I went out and bought one for myself.

    Since that day I have spent a lot of time checking out any new PC laptops that get released, mostly looking at their design. Nothing has come close in my opinion. This swanky new Compaq 2710 is just another pretender. Everyone I’ve spoken to remains utterly convinced that Macs (in any form) look massively superior to their PC counterparts. Yes the designs may be a few years old, but why does that mean they need updating? When something comes along that looks like it will seriously challenge Apple’s hold on aesthetic bragging rites then maybe a revamp will be necessary (but knowing Apple they’ll make sure they stay at least two steps and five years ahead of the competition anyway). Until then the slight redesigns with every upgraded model will do fine. Even the Compaq doesn’t come close in my eyes.

  • Matt C

    Up until last October I was a PC user and I was in the market for a laptop. Several of my friends were (and still are) Mac users, one of them owning a MacBook Pro. I spent a lot of time scouring the Internet, High Street stores and looking at all those brochures that get bundled in newspapers to find a laptop that 1) came with the performance I craved 2) had some good bundled software and 3) looked mighty good anywhere, whether at home or on the road.

    The main PC manufacturers let me down. Yes you could get high performance, no you couldn’t get any decent bundled software and they all looked like they’d been mangled by the neighbourhood rottweiler. I ended up spending ages on my friends MacBook Pro, fiddling around with all the neat pieces of software and admiring its beautifully minimalist (as someone else has already pointed out here) looks. I went out and bought one for myself.

    Since that day I have spent a lot of time checking out any new PC laptops that get released, mostly looking at their design. Nothing has come close in my opinion. This swanky new Compaq 2710 is just another pretender. Everyone I’ve spoken to remains utterly convinced that Macs (in any form) look massively superior to their PC counterparts. Yes the designs may be a few years old, but why does that mean they need updating? When something comes along that looks like it will seriously challenge Apple’s hold on aesthetic bragging rites then maybe a revamp will be necessary (but knowing Apple they’ll make sure they stay at least two steps and five years ahead of the competition anyway). Until then the slight redesigns with every upgraded model will do fine. Even the Compaq doesn’t come close in my eyes.

  • Pmoes

    Nurses Doctors and graphic designers.
    Still not a whole lot od customers to make tooling up the factory yet.
    But you are right. It would be fantastic for that graphic design use. But wouldn’t it have to be a huge screen?

  • theguycalledtom

    I have to agree with some of the other posters, The Macbook design is completely different to the old ibooks and is quite amazing. I only wish they would make a smaller model that was as equally thin. So many of my friends are keeping their 12 inch iBooks and Powerbooks because they fit so perfectly on their laps and on airplane tray tables. The 13″ Macbooks are just are just a little too wide to fit in the average sized bag and feel a little awkward on the lap for a lot of people.

    Most importantly, they need to return to better quality components. 80% of of the 20 or so friends I have with mac intel notebooks have had their computers replaced at least once after long waits in warranty repair queues. This never used to happen 5 years ago.

  • imajoebob

    “Nurses Doctors and graphic designers.” Wow, talk about out of date information.

    Nearly 2/3 of incoming freshman at Princeton chose Macs. Other Ivies report similar, thought not as high numbers. In the workplace the demanding users (and tech influencers) – those that create and maintain their own data sets, use large databases away from the servers, and need greater impact from their production are using Macs, especially PowerBooks and MacBook Pros. If you want to do advanced statistics, business simulation, or professional copy, you want a Mac.

    IT departments – especially at universities, are recommending Apple because they’re much more reliable and TCO is a fraction of PCs. The more advanced are even switching to Xservers because of better performance, better support, and low- or no-cost client licenses. For the server-based applications that only have Windows clients, the Microsoft Remote Desktop Client (yes, MS) and Terminal Services on the server will do everything a PC does, and sometimes faster! The RDC acts just like an OS X window (interoperability). Away from the server you can run Parallels. Every application shared by both platforms save to identical file formats.

    As for everyone clamoring for a return of the 12″ PowerBook, look again. The MacBook IS the 12′ PowerBook, but with a screen 1″ wider (PB12.1 – 10×7.5 vs MB13.3 – 11×7.5 approx) and about 20% better resolution – and same video memory.

    Perhaps Apple can repackage the MB in aluminum and give it the better video card and they’ll have an actual small-factor MBP. But enough Apple buyers are smart enough to save the (likely) $500 price difference and just go for the standard MB, or spend an extra $200 and get the 15.1″ screen, especially with the LED backlight.

  • Greg

    ….and teachers! There are mroe teachers out there than execs, and we’d all lvoe a light (and tough) little machine to show presentations to classes. I cart my iBook around and its perfect, but its too heavy, and too much power for powerpoint and the web, which is all I need for school.

  • Jimmi

    Design is one thing; however, the HP will be running some version of Windows. Windows is such a bloated piece of crap that is always teetering and filled with more security leaks than Macs. No matter what HP designs, it still doesn’t have OS X inside.

  • Stuart

    I’m guessing this must be tongue in cheek looking at that HP Compaq, seriously… I agree some nice new design would be nice, but that’s certainly not how I’d want it to look.

  • J is Here

    I agree that the Macs are looking a bit tired, but I can live with them ‘looking’ that way as long as they continue to work as the functional miracles they are now. There is, however, a massive hole in the Apple computer line-up. I know that a subnotebook is rumoured all over the web, but the signs are not good. I know, I know, rumours are usually full of sh!t, but if the MacBookThin, or whatever they call it, does end up being just an anorexic MacBook with a 13″ widescreen, and a 3 hour battery-life, it’ll totally miss its raison-d’etre.

    To fill the glaring hole in Apple’s lineup, I use a Panasonic R6 daily. This little miracle, while not a processor powerhouse, has a 3:2 10.4″ screen, a fully useable keyboard, less than 2lb, and an amazing 8 hour battery life. This IS the subnotebook Apple should be making – with OSX it would be perfect.

    http://www.techeblog.com/index

    Come on Apple – enough with the iPod and iPhone for a while! Give us the computers we’re begging for!

  • Pmoes

    imajoebob and greg, I am looking for good reasons to make a mac tablet. Everyone knows a mac is best, but is there really a need for a mac tablet

  • grammar

    “We had nothing minimal involvement with the products I’m writing about here)”

    “We had nothing minimal” does not make sense. There’s no punctuation at the end of the sentence either.

  • John

    I have a 17″ MBP and a 15″ MBP and I’ve got to say they are still the sexiest laptops on the market!! Nothing even comes close. Every HP/Compaq I’ve ever seen has far to many buttons, ports, and colors. MBP desgin rules with it’s simplicity, and durability. How can you improve on perfection?

    OK… yes I’m a little biased. I’ve just become a Mac user about a year ago and am still giddy with excitement about everything Apple does.

  • Thesetd22

    Select models also host a Digital Fingerprint reader for enhanced security. Workmanship is excellent and has a beautiful black high gloss finish with stainless steel touch pad and 18 inch screen is awesome.