HP on laptop design similarities with Apple's: it's a struggle as we drive to simplicity

HP's spent the afternoon here in Shanghai to share some details about its latest products and strategy, and to our delight, there was one session dedicated to "Style Meets Function," during which Vice President of Industrial Design Stacy Wolff talked about his design philosophy and design goals for the current market. Most notably, we learned that some of HP's latest laptop designs were based on the work of its research centers from 11 different cities, and the company isn't afraid of admitting that it used consultants for an outside perspective as well.

Despite Stacy's upbeat presentation and interesting stats (apparently these days men have a boring color preference, from first to fourth favorite: black, gray, blue and white), the inevitable question popped up: One lady expressed her concern that the brand-spanking-new Envy Spectre XT reminded her of the MacBook Air a lot, so she wondered if HP's ever worried that Apple might sue.

Stacy kept his initial reply pretty brief:

"I would go back to the TC1000 [Tablet PC] from about 10 years, and that's a tablet. I think if you look at the new Spectre XT, there are similarities in a way, not due to Apple but due to the way technologies developed. Apple may like to think that they own silver, but they don't. In no way did HP try to mimic Apple. In life there are a lot of similarities."

As always, we wanted more from the horse's mouth, so we grabbed hold of Stacy right after the session and had a little chat over this topic -- you can see the full and surprisingly candid interview after the break.

Going back to that question -- that lady asked you about the similarities with Apple. Surely when you guys think of a design, do these red flags not come up? I know they don't own these things but...

The thing is that you have to design what's right, and that is that sometimes the wedge is the right solution, silver is the right solution. I see a lot of differences as much as the similarities. I think anybody that's close enough to the business sees that there are differences in the design. Ours is rubber-coated at the bottom. We use magnesium; they didn't do that -- they use CNC aluminum. We did a brush pattern on our product; they didn't. We did a different kind of keyboard execution. We did audio as a component; they didn't. So there are a lot of things I can list off that are differences; but if you want to look at a macro level, there are a lot of similarities to everything in the market that's an Ultrabook today. It is not because those guys did it first; it's just that's where the form factor is leading it.

The thing is that you have to design what's right.

As you deal with polymer batteries, the cooling, the processor and the board, all those fit into certain things. If I were to push that forward, I could be a reverse wedge but that wouldn't work, right? So you have to kind of deal with it. As you go to the back, the largest component now actually is your cooling, right? As you deal with your panel you have the hinges -- you do a drop hinge. Do they own drop hinge? No.

I think the thing is that we can make a story out of it but it doesn't exist. The story really is how HP's taken the Ultrabook category and moved it forward. HP has now brought audio as a component for the Ultrabook. HP brought unique services to the table. I mean, we just bring a kind of a blood brother, different things to the market. And again, I think if you look at it from a surface level, it's probably the wrong way to look at it.


So you guys don't run some designs through lawyers?

I think everybody got wigged out with the whole legal action with the Samsung interface and all those pieces. I think the key thing is that they're a different company and they service a different audience, they have a different OS. We're a Windows ecosystem and we're building a product that is basically genuine to HP. I think that the struggle is as we, again, drive to that simplicity, the shape just becomes one. I don't think a lot of other companies are purposely designing to be copycats. I think a few might be.

In China, maybe.

Yeah. The problem is that when I squeeze the product down from the big guy to the littlest guy, all that emotion and form become flatter and flatter and flatter, and guess what? I'm tapering to the front, it becomes a wedge. It's the reality of the form. Form follows function.

I think most people are looking at the black keyboard against the silver body...

Yeah. You know, the funny thing is that we did that before they did, but no one gave us credit. It's one of those things. You go back a few years and you start to look at what we did during the Pavilion stages, a long time ago when we started to do that. Even the chiclet, right? In the mid-80s we did a chiclet keyboard, but did anybody give us credit? No.

Nor to Sony, either.

Well Sony was actually after us, but certainly, Sony made a huge hay in releasing that. But unfortunately, when you come to the table, it's one of those things that... there's a PR engine at play that's just wonderful.

And fanboys.

What you have is a common theme of island style keyboard, use of silver, wedge design.

Yeah, fanboys are wonderful, right? You guys gotta be my fanboys, come on. [Laughs] I think the big thing for me is that we're doing what's right for the customers, so one of the things is by going with the isolated island style of keyboard, there's only so many ways to do it, right? If I put it on a black surface you'd go, "Oh you didn't copy." If I put it on a silver surface, "Oh you're copying." How can that be? You know, it's a change of color, there's no intent to mimic or to follow. What you have is a common theme of island style keyboard, use of silver, wedge design. So if I measure things on a macro level, well, you know, maybe you can judge it that way. I don't.

This is mainly because Apple has so few products and they're put into bigger spotlights than most other products.

Yeah, you know, it's a struggle when you distill it down to just a few things. Again, like I said, with our TC1000 I didn't come over to the Cupertino office and say "Hey, this looks like our old tablet. Why did you guys do this?"

[Stacy then addresses a quick question about a Windows 8 rumor before heading out for the shuttle bus.] OK, thank you very much, bye guys!