Microsoft sets designs on geek chic

16 Sep 2004

We all know the PC as a beige pile of ugliness atop our desks at home or at work that may delight IT managers but is a necessary evil for the rest of us. Yet the appearance of computers is changing to suit our tastes and interests. In the late Nineties Apple brought out the colourful iMac and many readers probably have plasma screens and ergonomic keyboards today that ward off the dangers of repetitive strain injury.

“In many ways the PC has evolved for the better,” says Microsoft Hardware Group’s worldwide director of marketing, Matt Barlow.

While acknowledged the world over as a software maker, Microsoft rarely gets credit for its pioneering work in terms of hardware and the ergonomics of computing. For example, Microsoft was one of the first companies to introduce the mouse in the Eighties. In the Nineties it moved to get rid of the traditional trackerball mouse by introducing the infrared-driven optical mouse. Microsoft is also credited with enabling users to use the mouse to cut and paste text in the pre-Windows days of the Eighties.

“We also embedded scroll wheels in computer mice, which has enabled people to work 25pc faster on their PCs,” Barlow reminds us.

Tired of being merely functional, Microsoft now wants to get fashionable. In Paris last week the company unveiled 13 different products that are likely to feature strongly in the computing market in coming years. In what was the company’s largest single hardware product launch ever, the company introduced an array of optical wireless computer mice, ergonomic keyboards, Bluetooth adapters and — most interestingly — fingerprint scanners that will speed up your surfing experience online.

The array of wired and wireless mice come in all manner of colours, from cobalt blue to fiery lava, with keyboards presented in a merging of black and silver — not a beige hue in sight.

To put credibility behind its desire to be fashionable, the company recruited renowned designer Philippe Starck to change the appearance of the computer mouse as we know it. Paris-based Starck’s work spans the worlds of art, architecture and industrial design. He has done work on the Elysées Palace at former French president François Mitterrand’s request; redesigned the Royalton and Paramount hotels in New York and scattered Japan with architectural jewels that have made him the leading exponent of expressionist architecture. His respect for the environment and for humankind has also been recognised in France, where he was commissioned to design the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the control tower at Bordeaux airport and a waste recycling plant in Paris.

His end design for Microsoft was a sleek hemispheric, two-button mouse with a shimmering silver finish and a glowing strip of light — available in orange and blue — as well as featuring optical technology and a coloured scroll wheel.

“Modern elegance is duplication; everything today is mass produced,” Starck says, indicating that just because products are mass produced, they need not be vulgar. “To come up with a new product design I decided to kill the original concept. My work is not to be the best but to help people to have a better life. The mouse reflects a minimalist relationship with your computer and the light reflects a proof of life.”

Microsoft also revealed its plans to roll out fingerprint-reading devices that will remove the complexity from computing by enabling web surfers to cut down on the number of passwords they need to remember to access websites.

By pressing a thumb or forefinger on the scanners, which are either separate or included on some of the new keyboard products, users surfing a specific website no longer have to remember or type specific passwords to access the site as the fields are automatically populated by the necessary user names, passwords and any other information required.

The fingerprint device comes in three products: Optical Desktop keyboard with Fingerprint Reader; Wireless intelliMouse Explorer with Fingerprint Reader; and the stand-alone Microsoft Fingerprint Reader.

“Keeping track of user names and passwords is a real frustration for people,” says Roger Kay, vice-president of client computing at IDC. “Although using a combination of methods, including using a strong password, is recommended for retrieving personal and financial information from the internet, a biometric password manager clearly makes opening ordinary password-protected web pages more convenient.”

Microsoft is positioning the technology as a convenience tool rather than recommending it for high-end security uses such as accessing personal bank accounts. For example, Microsoft estimates 75pc of home PCs are shared by one or more users and fingerprint readers enable individuals to have their particular settings immediately called up. In this way, concerned parents can ensure their children aren’t accessing inappropriate sites online or putting the PC to improper use.

Jean-Philippe Courtois, CEO of Microsoft EMEA, told journalists that the rollout of the new devices is a response to consumers’ desire to take the complexity out of the use of technology in their lives. “People want to be unique in how they communicate, interact and the way they use technology in their lives. By introducing devices that deliver easier and more enjoyable ways to access information we are striving to enrich the users’ experiences,” he said.

By John Kennedy

Microsoft’s chairman Bill Gates has joined forces with French designer Philippe Starck (right) to change the appearance of computing forever.