What a girl wants
At this month's International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) - which is the largest of its kind and held each year in Las Vegas - three fashion-industry players left the world of couture and catwalks to judge models of a different kind. In a competition staged by Microsoft, top photographer Nigel Barker, hip-hop trendsetter Tony Shellman and stylist/entrepreneur Misa Hylton-Brim turned their attention to the 12 most stylish Windows-based personal computers that will hit the market this year.
The three judges paid close attention to the design, colour, curves and overall aesthetic appeal of the models. Some were slim and square, others were more rounded. Some were clad in leather while a few were lacquered.
The top three included mainland firm Haier's Notebook VM, which sports a car-quality paint job and has its screen and keyboard linked via a rotary spindle to allow users to pull the screen upwards and forwards. Other awardees included the Sony LT, a wall-mountable high-definition television with a Vaio PC tucked into its side panel, and the ultimate winner - Dutch firm Ego Lifestyle's Signature PC, a laptop with a rounded design resembling a lady's handbag available in a leather, chrome, titanium or lacquer finish.
What we are witnessing is the 'feminisation of technology'. Gone are the days of engineering-driven manufacturing and marketing. Say hello to more stylish, fashion-forward designs, catering to popular demand.
'Product differentiation in the PC industry is getting harder and harder to achieve based on technical specs,' says Nadine Kano, marketing director for experience computing at Microsoft. 'People have always wanted power, speed and reliability, but these days they can get comparable disk space, processor speed and RAM from many PC manufacturers. To get something unique, people are now looking for style.'
Computer maker Lenovo, the mainland's largest information technology company, is betting this year will see demand soar for its line of stylish notebook computers: IdeaPad. At the CES, some critics claimed the IdeaPad U110, due to be released in March, would be 'one of the sexiest laptops' on the market.
Designed for women, it features a floral textured, red aluminium lid. It also has touch-sensitive media controls, a Dolby Home Theatre sound system, a solid-state drive and Lenovo's Active Protection System, which shields the hard drive in the event the notebook is dropped. Deservedly so, the laptop was awarded best in show in the computers and hardware category by interactive media firm CNET.
One of the leaders in this style-conscious era is Dutch electronics giant Philips, which has put tremendous effort into its latest designs. 'We have a team of more than 90 in Hong Kong. Of that group, at least 70 per cent are designers while the others specialise in various technical areas to support them. We have a very mixed team of more than 11 nationalities and most of them are women,' says Low Cheaw-hwei, senior creative director at Philips Design.
That team was responsible for Active Crystals, unique products made in collaboration with Austrian luxury jewellery group Swarovski. These elegant items may be worn on a girls' night out but they also serve as USB thumb drives with up to 1 gigabyte of capacity.
Memory storage specialist SanDisk is also working hard to appeal to the female market with thumb drives that can be worn as necklaces.
Philips pushed the idea of 'jewellery with a purpose' very strongly at the CES. 'Women play an influential role in many buying decisions involving lifestyle products. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that, in the United States, women will make 40 per cent of the consumer electronics purchases in a US$200 billion marketplace,' says Andrea Ragnetti, chief executive at Philips Electronics. 'We found that when it comes to buying that most masculine of products - an electric shaver - women call the shots.'
Even Taser International, maker of electronic control devices - stun guns, to you and me - made sure it had CES visitors buzzing with its bid for style credibility. It unveiled the Taser C2, which has a leopard-print motif and a holster that carries an MP3 player. 'The Taser C2 leopard-print design provides a personal-protection option for women who want fashion with a bite,' says Rick Smith, the company's chief executive and founder.
The fashion trend spotlighted at the CES extends to toys that fly and those with a considerable amount of robotics in them. A key player in this field is WowWee, which began life many years ago in Hong Kong but was recently acquired by a Canadian company, Optimal Group.
Price, apparently, is a secondary consideration. 'People are willing to pay more for a product that expresses their personal style,' says Kano.
'The more personal my machine feels to me, the more attached I become to it and the more loyal a customer I will be.'
Additional reporting by Bien Perez.