Black Is Beautiful

Black Is Beautiful

Black Is Beautiful

Moneybox
Commentary about business and finance.
May 11 1999 1:00 PM

Black Is Beautiful

I am baffled. A couple of weeks ago I suddenly got it into my head that I needed a new desktop computer to replace the perfectly well-functioning but nonetheless two-year-old Toshiba on which this is being written. (Reason enough to junk the damn thing, to be sure.) When I bought this desktop, it was, if not a state-of-the-art machine, then pretty close to it. That means, of course, that it became painfully slow--at least in relative terms--within a few months, and that less than a year later I could have bought a desktop that was essentially twice as fast for the same amount of money.

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Moore's Law--which describes the speed with which computer processing power improves--is a wonderful driver of technological change, but no better system for engendering consumer bitterness has ever been devised.

My bitterness, which I have nurtured in silence lo these many months, was aggravated by the fact that I bought my desktop just before the so-called sub-$1,000 market exploded. The chip in this machine is a simple Intel Pentium--albeit a Pentium MMX chip, which at the time seemed like a major selling point. It has since been superseded by two generations of Pentiums on the high end, while on the low end, AMD's K6 chip and Intel's own Celeron have blown past it in terms of both performance and price. Prices have fallen so low that my computer is actually slower than the desktops that companies are essentially giving away to people who agree to sign up for Internet service.

Still, in the interest of continuing my record of imagining I'm in the technological vanguard while in fact the masses are heading in a different direction entirely, I'm in the market for a high-powered machine again. If you're going to buy a new PC, get one that you'll still be able to use three years from now, right? This is probably foolish, since three years from now Intel's Pentium architecture itself may be obsolete. Aren't we all going to be relying on the new Sony Playstation or Intel's long-promised Merced chip for our home computing by then?

My answer to that question is, I guess, no, although I may just be frustrated with my pokey modem and tiny hard drive. Anyway, foolish or not, I've been shopping on the Web for a powerful Wintel desktop. And here's why I'm baffled: Every machine I've looked at--with a couple of notable exceptions--is white. Dell, Gateway, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard: all white. The mini-towers, the keyboards, the monitors: white, white, white. Some of the computers shade closer to putty, some to bone, some to snow. But they're all white.

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One dazzling exception is IBM's Aptiva S Series, which is a beautiful black ("stealth black"), a black so deep that it might be said of it, in true Spinal Tap fashion, "There is none more black." This is a gorgeous machine. So, too, is the new SGI workstation, which is divided between black and purple, both of which are done in a very cool--as opposed to hot--palette. (The Sony VAIO desktop is gray, but I think it looks like a toy.) The SGI machine is really for high-end graphics users, and is priced accordingly. The Aptiva has essentially the same specs as the best desktops at Dell or Gateway, but not surprisingly costs more (mainly because of Dell and Gateway's cheaper cost structure, but I also wonder if the color doesn't have something to do with it).

Now, I really want a black computer. Who wants a garish white thing as the centerpiece, or even a sidepiece, of his or her apartment? And I assume that other people want, if not black, then at least non-white machines. The iMac represents a radically different aesthetic from the Aptiva, but its success shows that people think about design when they buy. So why has the PC industry not responded?

That's an especially confusing question when you consider that the basic problem for PC makers is how to differentiate themselves from each other. All PC makers do is essentially assemble a box inside which parts made by other companies go (processors by Intel, disk drives by Seagate, software by Microsoft, etc.) Now, some companies--i.e., Dell--have figured out how to assemble that box much more efficiently than their competitors, which is one route to profitability. But surely another logical route is to make the box itself distinctive. The success of stores like Williams-Sonoma and products like the new Beetle suggests that people will go out of their way to find and pay for excellent design. Certainly I will. Is it really possible that only IBM believes this?