'Bend it like Beckham' could have been the mantra notebook personal computer manufacturers followed while designing products that were on display earlier this month at the CeBIT trade show in Hanover, Germany.
Some of the world's most innovative laptop makers had stretched, turned, manoeuvred, twisted, angled and transformed their new notebook PCs in unique, unconventional yet stylish ways to capture the attention of the tens of thousands who attended the world's largest annual information technology expo.
If there was a message from these original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) at the cutting edge of kit design, it was this: the PC experience is now more about the person and less about the technology.
Leading the pack was Swiss computer maker Dreamcom Corp, which showed an elegantly designed, Transformers-like modular ergonomic notebook. Aside from the integration of the most advanced technical features, Dreamcom's 10-series laptop includes a vertically adjustable screen for greater working comfort and a mobile docking station able to adapt to the demands of working on the road.
The low, stressful working positions in which most laptops are used and disturbing reflections on their screens can mean regular users adopt positions that lead to headaches and cramping
of the neck and shoulder muscles, says Jannis Widmer, executive chairman and chief executive at Dreamcom. The new notebook - which runs Intel's latest Dual 2 Core processor and Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system - attempts to solve those problems with a non-reflecting, laminated 15.4-inch screen that can be raised by up to 15cm and manoeuvred into three different positions.
'No other notebook manufacturer is addressing this need,' claims Widmer, although Toshiba and other large traditional notebook PC suppliers have spiced up their product lines with models that either have rotating displays or which can be converted into a tablet PC with touch-screen interface.
Dreamcom's mobile docking station allows for flexibility when using the machine at a coffee shop, inside a car or otherwise on the go. The laptop has a smooth magnesium alloy chassis, integrated 2-megapixel camera for video conferencing, Wi-fi support, a fingerprint scanner and a smart-card reader.
Taiwanese firm E-Lead Electronic, a specialist OEM of car-navigation and multimedia systems, was another firm to catch the eye at CeBIT, presenting an enhanced, flexible ultra-mobile personal computer (UMPC) - the Noahpad. UMPC is an industry specification for small tablet PCs with, typically, 7-inch screens.
The Noahpad has two operation modes; it can be used like a laptop or turned into a palmtop by folding the screen panel. Large, clickable dual touch pads make cursor control and screen navigation simple, even when portions of a standard 10-inch window are displayed at a resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels on the 7-inch screen. No longer will a compact monitor be so detrimental to a UMPC user's eyes.
Another Taiwanese OEM, AsusTek Computer, took the concept of flexibility further, presenting a prototype line that features varying eco-friendly materials in the design. At CeBIT, the material used was bamboo. An experimental notebook computer was encased in the wood while the existing S6 and U6 laptops, Essentio 5110 desktop and Ls201 monitor have been decorated with
it. The bamboo brings 'a touch of spiritual warmth with its unique tactile surface and its refreshing fragrance', says AsusTek. The company makes the grandiose claim that creating products that achieve style and performance while conserving the Earth by using less environmentally harmful materials has become the industry's common ideal.
Forrester Research, a United States-based market-research firm, has predicted the period between now and 2012 will be an 'age of style' for the consumer PC industry, with manufacturers weaving design considerations into every aspect of their business, including research and development, brand management, marketing and retailing.
Innovators are expected to take their cue from the motor industry, which, in the language of marketing theory, has learned to 'empower consumers' self-expression'. What car makers have done well, through both their product designs and advertising, is engage the buyer's psyche and respond to lifestyle expectations, creating an experience that's about more than horsepower, leather seats and CD players.
'OEMs are really rising to this challenge. Some of their designs are quite sophisticated,' says Nadine Kano, marketing director for experience computing at Microsoft. 'We've definitely moved beyond the days when, to paraphrase [early 20th century American industrialist] Henry Ford, you could get a PC in any colour you wanted, as long as it was beige.'