And if any product could use an injection of style, it's the computer. The chunks of plastic and steel on desk tops and in travel bags have gotten smaller and flatter over the past decade, but otherwise, personal computers have remained largely unchanged. The sector is so style-challenged, in fact, that a move from white and beige to black and gray was once considered aesthetic progress.
But according to the Forrester report, that's all going to change in the next five years or so. Style and aesthetics will change personal-computer design in a way similar to what happened in the automotive world, said J.P. Gownder, principal analyst and main author of the study.
More sizes, shapes, colors
Tired of their basic Model-T-like boxes, he said, consumers will start focusing on personalized aesthetic options such as a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colors. Of course, marketing will have to change to focus on the experience of owning this or that particular model.
According to a study released last week by Schonfeld & Associates, overall ad spending in the PC category was predicted to hit $1.98 billion in 2007, with a 9% increase expected for 2008.
"Style hasn't yet become as important for PCs as for products like automobiles, (but) consumers exhibit a latent demand for stylish PCs and are willing to pay a style premium," Mr. Gownder wrote in his report, titled "The Age of Style in Consumer PCs." He added in an interview that "style and aesthetic concerns will really expand opportunities in marketing."
The timing of the report comes just as Dell officially announced 10 new colors for its laptops, as well as different sizes and functionalities. The launch is bolstered by a marketing campaign tagged in multicolor letters "Yours is here." Dell spent $694 million in 2006 and $100 million in the first quarter of 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Dell couldn't be reached for comment, but in a statement regarding the launch, VP-Consumer Marketing Zita Cassizzi said: "Getting to know customers is what we do best. Taking their feedback, putting it to work, and delivering the devices consumers want most is reflected in these new products."
Old news to Apple
Of course, Apple has long focused on design and invested in style for its machinery, as well as its marketing.
"Apple gets so much press for its industrial design," Mr. Gownder said. "Other companies said, 'Hey, how can we do this too?'"
But what took everyone else so long? Consumers are partly to blame. Aside from hard-core geeks who modify their own cases, demand for stylish PC design has lagged that of other categories. Apple may have already sold 100 million of its elegantly simple iPods, but it still retains just a small market share in computers. Today, however, computers are being used in kitchens, living rooms, and even bathrooms, where style and form factor becomes more relevant. Also, the popularity of laptops, which have become almost an accessory, combined with changes and flexibility in how PCs are manufactured, have both contributed to a new emphasis on computer aesthetics.
And by aesthetics, the Forrester report isn't just referring to colors and sizes, although that is the first step in this movement.
"Right now we think about laptops and desktops. But by 2012, we'll be thinking about five or more categories of PCs -- maybe laptops, desktops, touch screens, home theater PCs, ultra mobile PCs and furniture PCs," Mr. Gownder said.
Dell still has work to do
Different manufacturers will take different paths, Mr. Gownder maintains. Dell's new strategy, for instance, stretches its long-held idea of mass customization. It's a first step, Mr. Gownder said, but he added the company will need to make sure potential customers can actually see and experience the "cooler-than-you-think" PCs.
"The retail mise-en-scene is becoming and will continue to become, much more important," he said.
Marketing strategies will play a role in determining winners and losers in the new stylized PC arena.
Apple already occupies the Louis Vuitton or Audi spot in the computer market place. That is, an upscale niche brand with one distinctive design that stretches across all its products.
Others, such as HP, Gateway, Sony and Acer, will likely expand style and the marketing. Sony, for instance, is already a high-end stylized brand with colors and skins for several of its models, and will likely continue to attempt to appeal to more affluent buyers.
Along with his style predictions and call to action, Mr. Gownder did note a need for a new sense of caution.
"There is a big reward for innovation in style, but there's a big risk too," he said. "Fads can become more of a possibility."
And of course, high style in computers may not be for every one.
"Style will affect all demographics [in the PC market], but it's really the upper quarter of consumers who will be the most style conscious," Mr. Gownder said.