Microsoft ships "Vista Industrial Design Toolkit" to PC manufacturers 7/31/2006 3:36:14 PM, by Jeremy Reimer
With the launch of Windows 95, Microsoft pulled out all the stops. An elaborate launch was held, with celebrity appearances, a Rolling Stones theme song, and more press coverage than the industry had ever seen. Windows 95 featured a theme of white fluffy clouds on a blue sky background, which was reflected in not only the box cover but the default background picture for the desktop. At the time, some industry pundits wondered if this wouldn't become a trend, with subsequent OS releases adopting a new visual theme each time. However, Windows 98 continued with the fluffy clouds theme, and Windows XP went back to a plain-looking box with a variety of scenic landscapes available for desktop wallpaper.
Now, Microsoft is preparing for another major launch, with Windows Vista scheduled for public release early next year. This time, things are a little different: not only is Microsoft paying close attention to the visual style of the OS and box art, but now it wants to have some influence in the design of PCs themselves. The company has sent out a Vista Industrial Design Toolkit to at least 70 different PC manufacturers.
The toolkit, which is delivered free of charge, contains a whole host of suggestions about how to build a PC that will fit with the look and style of Windows Vista. From color palettes to suggestions about how the power and reset buttons should appear, the kit basically describes Microsoft's vision of what a "Vista PC" should look like. The look features "accelerated curves" and "purposeful contrast," among other qualities. "We want people to fall in love with their PCs, not to simply use them to be productive and successful," reads the enclosed booklet. "We want PCs to be objects of pure desire."
Not all OEMs are happy to see this kit. Lenovo, the company that took over IBM's PC manufacturing business, doesn't see how adhering to the design will help their company. "Our ability to differentiate ourselves comes from our industry-leading innovation," a Lenovo spokesperson told Businessweek. "And design is a big part of that."
Microsoft, for their part, insists that adoption of the kit is completely optional, and is merely offered as a suggestion to help boost PC sales once Vista is released. Some smaller OEMs may indeed find the information useful and allow them to add a bullet point to their marketing brochures.
This isn't the first time Microsoft has desired to have some influence over the PC hardware standard. With the release of Windows 95, the company pushed for the inclusion of a "Windows key" as part of the new PC keyboard standard—a suggestion that most OEMs, with the notable exception of IBM, quickly adopted. And of course, there were the "Designed for Windows 95/98/XP" stickers that managed to find their way to so many pieces of hardware. However, this is the first serious attempt that Microsoft has taken to try to directly influence the way PC manufacturers design their hardware.
The approach immediately brings to mind comparisons with Apple, who in recent years have taken great pains to synchronize the look of their operating system with their hardware—think of the pinstripes on older Apple flatscreen monitors, or the "brushed metal" features of OS X components paired with the aluminum G5. However, it's too simplistic to say that Microsoft is simply trying to emulate Apple. The two companies operate in different markets and have different goals. Microsoft has no intention of limiting its operating system to its own hardware, whereas Apple is quite insistent on doing just that.
Still, for most people the operating system and the computer are one and the same, and so it's somewhat natural that Microsoft would want to try and make the two fit together visually. Will their efforts be successful? One possible roadblock is the fact that industrial design costs money, and the growth markets for personal computers are in the very low end of the spectrum, where every penny shaved off the unit counts. Still, high-end niche companies like Alienware and Falcon show that there is a market for people willing to spend more for a fancy design, and small "screwdriver shop" OEMs routinely show off the latest in crazy cases. If the major OEMs don't go for the Vista look, perhaps some of the smaller ones will.