Entelligence: Technology is fashion and the new fashion is technology

Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.

I've been a technology industry analyst for some time now, and I can tell you that the benchmark of a great analyst is the quality of the advice you give based on how well you're able to forecast trends. In my tenure, my team hasn't often been wrong. But let me share a secret -- here's one where we totally missed the ball.

A vendor -- who shall remain nameless -- briefed us in the late 90s with the idea of creating a line of PCs targeted at a mass market audience, with a special focus on the female demographic. The idea was to build PCs in a range of and shapes and focus the marketing efforts through places like Cosmo instead of the usual PC magazines. We were asked to evaluate the plan, and without the slightest hesitation I responded that it was the dumbest idea I'd ever listened to -- period. (This is the tact that only an analyst can bring to the table.) I recall saying something to the effect of no user will ever buy a PC because it comes in five delicious flavors. The vendor forgot all about their plans and our analysis proved accurate -- until Steve Jobs and the iMac came along. If I had to put a stake in the ground that's when technology became fashionable.

It was that long ago that all PCs were created equal. PCs were PCs. If you wanted a server, you turned the box on its side, if you wanted a workstation, you painted it black (or blue), and if it was mobile you desired, you attached a handle to the top. Today, technology is as much about fashion and style as it is about feeds and speeds. Companies like Apple trumpet not only the functionality of their systems, but the fine grained leather cases available as accessories. Nearly every gadget you can think of today has been designed to stress form as much as function, which leads me to think of the classic maxim: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As we saw with the Kin launch, there's a focus on not just functionality but how that functionality is presented.

Why did fashion emerge and technology take a backseat to the superficial in some cases? First, as benefits of Moore's law became less relevant to users, vendors needed to differentiate devices any possible way. Second, the markup on accessories is huge. There's far more markup on some iPhone cases than there is on the iPhone itself. Third, as in all markets, mature platforms tend to fragment. There's a reason we have 500 brands of toothpaste that all do the same thing and there's a reason you're going to see more targeted devices that focus on specific features or form factors to attract a specific audience.

I don't think it's bad trend at all. My wrist watch and automobile were chosen in no small part due to aesthetics -- so why not my phone, desktop or laptop? In fact, if more vendors spent more time on the physical design and attributes of their devices, they'd probably sell more of them.

So I ask you, gentle and tech-savvy readers: do form, color and material matter to you, or is all about feeds and speeds? I know my answer: I'm off to order a new suede case for my iPad.

Michael Gartenberg is a partner at Altimeter Group. His weblog can be found at Contact him at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.