According to an interesting article in the unfortunately titled Ars Technica, Microsoft has produced a document suggesting that PC manufacturers design some more interesting-looking hardware to tie in with the forthcoming launch of Windows Vista.
I will avoid the obvious comparisons to Apple for now, but, really, what kind of retrograde industry has to be led by the hand into thinking about design?
The bargain bucket world of PC manufacturers, that's what.
Many years ago, while I was at school, I had an interesting book on industrial design. Unexciting as many of the featured products were, all were designed with care and attention to detail.
If only the same thing could be said for PC design.
I also bought, a little bit more recently, Graphis'sAppleDesign. This book, published prior to the iMac era, traces Apple's serious attitude to product design from the Apple II through to the Power Macintosh, Newton and eMate. In this book there are examples of non-Apple design, including a bovine insemination device which, honestly, has had more thought put into it than most desktop computers.
Computer design is a strange thing. Many early computers have some 'future technology' charm - especially when viewed with modern and jaded eyes - even if many all too obviously wore their silicon chips on their sleeves. Some were even genuinely well designed, the Commodore CBM700 Series, for example, designed by Porsche Design.
How did we get from there to black and beige cuboids? Courtesy of the likes of Michael Dell, that's how: pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap.
As Ars Technica itself says:
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.
Of course, there is also some not so subtle psychology at work in the design of electronic equipment. Much of the so-called 'brown goods' market is aimed at men and their fragile egos - bigger is better.
I was an early-ish adopter of DVDs. My DVD player is an enormous silver box. It's also mostly filled with air, not circuitry. Mobile phone design, engaged as it is in its own reverse pissing contest, is probably the only area of electronics manufacturing that is immune to this nonsense.
With computers things are worse again because of the desire to be conservative and 'businesslike', whatever that means (frankly, in my experience being 'businesslike' amounts to little more than not paying your bills).
Having not clapped eyes on Microsoft's guidelines myself I am in not position to say whether or not the company wants manufacturers to take design seriously, or if this is the same kind of occurrence as the PCs world's response to the original iMac - the addition of blue fins and 'fascias' to beige cuboids.