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Big beige box survives all assaults


Back in the '60s, when other auto makers were bragging about their sleek styling, Volkswagen advertised its now-legendary minibus this way:

"The Volkswagen Station Wagon looks like a box because it's built like a box. It lets you store the most possible stuff in the least possible space."

It took other manufacturers 20 years to appreciate the power of this simple message, but catch on they did, and today the minivan is the ultimate suburban cliche. These direct descendants of that clunky, underpowered VW bus are popular for one reason only: They're big boxes that hold a lot of kids, luggage, sports equipment and Labrador retrievers, in any combination.

Certainly nobody has ever bought a minivan for its styling, although lately designers have thrown in a curve or two in a dismal effort to disguise the beasts. But this is about as successful as dressing a hippopotamus in Spandex. You can't really make a box look like something else without turning it into something else, thereby losing the box's main allure -- its ability to hold stuff.

So it is with that other great utility player in our lives, the personal computer. IBM came up with a digital VW bus when it introduced its original PC in 1981. Its designers created a main circuit board (the actual computer), added expansion slots for disk controllers, video cards, communications ports and other gadgets, then put the whole thing in a big beige box.

The beauty of the box is that it's expandable from the inside. You don't have to perform major surgery, or put up with cables running all over a desktop cluttered with additional boxes, when you want to add a hard drive, CD-ROM or some other gadget.

True, the beige box offends those with a strong sense of color, shape and design. They've predicted the demise of the Plain PC for years.

And it's true that you don't need a big box to house a capable computer. Just look at the average laptop PC. If you're willing to give up expandability and old-fashioned notions such as backing up your critical files to some kind of removable medium, you can cram a decent desktop computer into a container that takes up no more space than a size 7 shoe box.

As a result, every six months or so, somebody comes up with a flashy new shape or color and a prediction that the beige box will disappear. If you'd like to see some of these "future PCs," point your Web browser to Intel's Concept PC page (www.intel.com/pressroom /archive/backgrnd/cn111598.htm). Then ask yourself if you'd buy one.

A few oddball designs have made it to the market, but aside from Apple's fruity iMac (a one-piece system designed to appeal to the kiddies), they've all flopped. Even Apple's top-of-the-line G4 computer -- the one designed for grownups -- is nothing more than a big box with curved edges and a designer logo.

The latest casualties in the computer design wars came from two of the industry's biggest players. Just last week Dell yanked its ballyhooed WebPC, which looked like a purple submarine conning tower, while Compaq abandoned its Presario 3500, a sleek little blue box hitched to a slim LCD screen that was too pricey for the great unwashed.

And just as it gave up on the WebPC, Dell announced a new lineup of its popular Dimension home computers. They're all beige boxes.

Why this persistence?

I put the question to Mark F. Bregman, general manager of IBM's Pervasive Computing division, who stopped by to talk about IBM's initiatives in hardware and software that let big network computers communicate with cell phones, personal digital assistants and other mobile devices.

"The beige box is around because it's an industrial product," he said. "There's no value added by making it look like a banana."

In fact, a good deal of value is subtracted. By giving up the roomy box, the designer of a "stylish" PC gives up the economies of using standard components. As a result, they're often more expensive than beige boxes with the same horsepower.

Eliminating the box also forces users to buy external add-on drives, which add even more clutter to the desktop. Worse yet, because they require their own cases and power supplies, external CD-Rewritable drives, Zip drives and other devices cost more than their internal brothers. And they often don't work as well.

Bregman also observed that Americans like their technology in plain wrappers. For example, he noted that almost all cell phones sold here are black (with a few daring gray models thrown in). In Europe, where cell phones are far more popular, they come in almost every color.

"Eventually they'll become personal fashion statements," he predicted.

We agreed that PCs, unlike cell phones, are unlikely to become anyone's idea of fashion, any more than refrigerators will become household design showpieces.

Basically, the beige box is what it is. If this extraordinary example of industrial design offends you, you can always buy the next fad computer. Or if you're smart, forget about the design police, buy the box and hide it under your desk.

Great books revisited: Almost six months ago I wrote a short review of "Computer Friendly," a terrific, no-nonsense book for beginners by Raymond Steinbacher. Since then, hardly a week has gone by without calls from readers who remembered the column but couldn't find the book.

Unfortunately, it isn't available in most retail outlets, but you can order it online or by phone for $13 from its publisher, Greentree Press. Surf to www.greentreepress.com or call 800-834-3888.

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