Let’s think together for a moment about all the things you and I wish for when we’re buying a new laptop. It should be fast and powerful, at least capable enough to run the apps we need. It should be quiet, because no one wants to hear a jet engine when they’re using Photoshop.
It should be light and sleek and look good. In 2017, the era of pixel-perfect high-def screens and beautiful plastics and metals, there’s no excuse for spending good money on ugly. It should be beautiful, in fact, this thing we’ll carry around to coffee shops and meetings and plant in our homes on desks and dining tables.
Now, think about all the checklists you’d have to keep track of if you’re the company making the laptop. The checks and balances between making a powerful, but hot-running machine -- versus making it cool and portable.
The trade-offs between including an pricey next-generation OLED display -- versus one that everyone can afford.
The mass buy of materials, the million of tiny decisions about every millimeter of this laptop’s innards and outers, the color, the finish, how it all fits together to create what clutter guru Marie Kondo might describe as joy. Does your laptops’s design bring anyone joy? Is it an object of desire?
Years ago, there weren’t a lot of people in the computer world who associated the desktops and laptops made by the company now known as Dell Technologies with beauty or style. That’s something the Round Rock-based company’s executives now routinely acknowledge.
“Five years ago (we were) doing stuff that was competitive, but the whole industry was a bit boring and I think we were way too boring and average in our approach,” Sam Burd, the vice president and general manager of Dell’s PC division, said in an interview with 512tech’s Lilly Rockwell at the recent Dell EMC World event in Las Vegas.
Check out a photo gallery of some of Dell’s design team and the company’s products
But over the past few years, Dell’s design aesthetic for its desktops and laptops has changed dramatically, starting in its premium line of computers aimed at video game enthusiasts and pro consumers, the ones who might otherwise be looking at an iMac or MacBook Pro from Apple. Those Dell products now routinely win innovation awards at consumer electronics shows for their forward-thinking builds and tend to earn high marks from tech reviewers for their looks.
Dell’s transformation from a company known for beige, boring boxes you’d want to stash under a desk to one that makes some of the most attractive machines in the industry didn’t happen overnight. And the company’s leaders in design say they’re thinking far beyond machines with clicky keyboards and desktop monitors as they peer into the future.
Ed Boyd’s crystal ball
Ed Boyd speaks carefully and methodically when he describes the way Dell Technologies approaches design, suggesting the air of someone organized to recognize that bad paths that can open up with a wrong conversational turn.
About 10 years ago, he came to Dell from Nike, where he led the sneaker company’s partnership to create Nike+ technology with Apple.
As senior vice president of Dell’s Experience Design Group, Boyd oversees a team of about 50 front-end designers in Austin and a much larger global team that scouts for next-generation materials and components, engineers the physics challenges of high computer speeds in tiny form factors and, perhaps most critically, looks ahead five to 10 years down the road.
“It’s really simple,” Boyd says in a meeting at Dell’s Parmer Lane facility in North Austin. “For us, design is about solving problems.”
The problems themselves are a moving target.
“Our approach in the past was probably more short-sighted in nature,” Boyd said. “As we’ve shifted into a private company and we’ve expanded into Dell Technologies, the amount of energy and effort and innovation has skyrocketed in the organization.”
In the meeting, Boyd shows two videos commissioned by Dell to illustrate his view of where tech is going, one related to small business, the other taking place at a college and spotlighting education technology.
In the ads, which play like promos for thoughtful dramas on premium cable, the world is filled with internet-connected collaborative chat whiteboards, clever tools for animators aided by augmented-reality glasses and, most notably, people using technology to work and communicate.
The videos aren’t commercials for Dell products; there aren’t any devices in them you can purchase today. But, Boyd says, they help Dell clarify the vision for the kinds of situations and problems they want to solve in their product design.
“We take that future vision and we cast it from the future to today. What steps do we want to take from now until then? Long-range vision work gives us a very clear rationale why we want to do those things,” he said. “What are the devices that are enablers to those experiences?”
In addition to ongoing work on the company’s current PC business, which is still a significant part of Dell’s brand even as it moves toward a more storage-and-services-driven business, Boyd says he’s been thinking a lot about the so-called “Third Wave” of computing.
“The first wave was mainframes. The second wave we’re in now is discreet devices, data everywhere that we command and control. The third wave is more immersive, shared and anticipatory,” Boyd said.
Dell, he says, tries to anticipate what the world will look like and what people will be doing, agnostic of whether the company is in that tech space.
“Sometimes those ideas are very disruptive to our business,” Boyd said. “Sometimes they’re very complementary. Is there a buy/build play around that future vision? What parts of the experience should we own?”
If Boyd’s team functions as a crystal ball for the entire company, it’s subject to adjustment. Some trends, Boyd says, such as driverless cars and mobile phones, evolved faster than anticipated, while a product such as Amazon’s Echo can create unanticipated change in what kinds of tech products want.
”The intent when you do advance vision work is not to be 100 percent accurate,” he said. “If you’re doing 50 percent, you’re doing great. If you’re doing 75 percent, boy you’re doing super well. As long as you have this process ongoing, it gives you a North Star.”
At a Best Buy
At the Best Buy Gateway store in North Austin, Dell’s systems can be spotted in a number of different areas, alongside the Lenovos and HPs and Apple’s suite of Macbooks and tablets.
But in its own large display at the center of the store is a significantly large area devoted to the company’s Alienware gaming systems, premium monitors and its XPS laptops, which are typically priced higher than the business-focused Latitude line and less expensive Inpiron systems.
The store has a full-time employee devoted to educating customers about Alienware, Bakr Alazany, who is well-versed on why materials and build quality matter to the people willing to pay hundreds of dollars more for a beast of a gaming system.
Pointing to one of the Alienware systems, Alazany says, “These have a complete steel chasis. All of the internal components are top-end units. Some gaming systems have one or two cooling vents; this one has six.”
He says the audience for such a machine is typically gamers, but also programmers, 3-D designers and architects. “Really just anyone who wants a powerful computer tends to look at this,” Alazany said. “They want something reliable and fast. That’s what they get out of Alienware.”
A new generation of graphics chips from Nvidia and AMD have created a resurgence in gaming PCs, allowing for more efficient, powerful laptop designs with enough horsepower to enable virtual-reality headsets.
Sometimes the funky, angular designs from Alienware can overreach a bit. Wired in an April review dinged the Alienware 13 laptop’s design, writing, “It looks less like a laptop and more like something you would put your laptop on” before concluding roughly: “This is an ugly computer.”
But that assessment is an outlier; XPS in particular has become synonymous with solid materials and attention to detail. Dell has been pushing “infinity edge” displays on some of its products that eliminate the borders of a laptop screen and tying to incorporate materials such as carbon fiber that are more eco-friendly as well as stronger and able to dissipate heat better than materials such as magnesium in previous generations of electronics.
Donnie Oliphant, director of XPS product marketing and a 30-year Dell veteran, says that since the brand relaunched five years ago, the company has been focused on making it a best-in-class line, no matter who the competition might be.
“Any product category we participate in with XPS, our charter is to deliver world-class products within that category. We don’t always get there, but it’s not for lack of trying,” Oliphant said. “There’s no magic (in design), just good and bad decisions.”
Oliphant says he wants customers’ happiness with the products they buy to be a long-term love affair.
“Everybody’s excited when you take that new toy out of the box. But what does the customer feel like on day 100? Day 300? Do they grow to love our product more as they live with it day in and day out? We’re designing the product that’s going to satisfy the customer over the long haul.”
Apple’s elephant in the room
Dell’s push on XPS and Alienware in particular comes at an interesting time, particularly as Apple has lagged in new computer designs over the past few years and has begun to frustrate high-end users who want more powerful iMac and Mac Pro systems.
Dell executives tend not to rush to discuss their products in relation to Apple, but Oliphant said, “I believe the Apple piece is a religious discussion. We’re Windows folks and we want to deliver the best Windows experience we can.”
Roger Kay, an analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates, says that it seems as if Apple has neglected its Mac business in favor of attention to the iPhone line.
“They haven’t updated Macs quite as rapidly as they should have,” Kay said. “It’s a tribute to Dell that it’s been able to get some good traction in that market with XPS. It’s high prices, good margins and tends to have satisfied customers; they like the premium experience.”
What’s more remarkable, Kay says, is that Dell has carved out premium business in a consumer PC industry that, “Is not particularly healthy overall.” Despite some rough industry industry conditions, Dell managed to grow its PC shipments in 2016.
“Design is a differentiator you can invest in up front and get the benefits and margins,” Kay said. “A better designed box, once you’ve paid for the better design, doesn’t cost you anything extra down the line. It doesn’t cost more money to design better, you just have to be a better designer.”
Further, Kay says, bringing a Mac laptop into a work meeting is no longer the status symbol it once was. “Apple is not blowing anybody away in the boardroom when somebody shows up with a Macbook.”
Linn Huang, a research director of devices and displays at industry research firm IDC, said: “Dell has done a good job of staying ahead and even leading broader design trends without necessarily conceding on performance. Their XPS line remains a mainstay in the premium end of the market, and they’ve been driving the movement toward bezel-less designs. It’s evident that the company has focused more on design, and their market position in the consumer segment would indicate that move is paying off.”
The XPS and Alienware design momentum, Huang says, bleeds into Dell’s commercial business as well. “Senior leaders started wanting thinner and better looking notebooks over time which presented an opportunity for PC makers to start translating some of their design language from the consumer side of the house to the enterprise.”
Boyd and his team say that’s (forgive me) by design. Materials and design principles that begin with Alienware and XPS tend to filter down the line to Dell’s Rugged, Latitude and Inspiron products, stretching Dell’s research and development dollars and creating cost advantages with its scale of supply buying.
Of late, Dell and other PC makers -- including Microsoft -- have gotten funkier and more forward-looking with their designs. Dell has had success with its 2-in-1 devices that combine tablets with a laptop-style keyboard and it turned an ear toward higher quality audio with an all-in-one PC it designed with Grammy-winning producer Jack Joseph Puig.
The company’s Canvas concept combines a traditional desktop screen with a giant screen below it for typing, drawing and the use of “Toten” gadgets such a radial dial.
Oliphant and Boyd both say that avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach has allowed Dell to design an array of consumer technology that can serve the broadest audience possible.
“If we focus on what customers want or what we believe customers need and the problems they’re trying to solve, the rest will take care of itself,” Oliphant said.
That five- to 10-year timeline often arrives faster than anyone expects, something of which Dell’s design team is keenly aware.
“The future,” Oliphant said, “is right around the corner.”
Cover photo: Donnie Oliphant, director of product marketing for the XPS line from Dell Technologies, shows off one of the company’s laptops at Dell’s Parmer Lane facility on Tuesday, May 2, 2017. Ricardo B. Brazziell / AMERICAN-STATESMAN