Beauty is Better Than Brains

When it comes to gadget-buying, looks are everything. What’s wrong with us?

It’s no wonder Detroit’s Big Three are failing; we hold them to a very high standard. We want cars that look good and function well, and why shouldn’t we? We spend a lot of money on them, and use them constantly. But what about the other invaluable products in our lives — our gadgets?


Most of us would weep openly at the loss of our beloved laptop or smartphone; they’re the vital receptacles for our documents, music, photos and contacts. But there are few consumer tech companies that offer both usability and beauty, the way that, say, Toyota [TM], Honda [HMC], Volkswagen [VLKAY] and their subsidiaries do (Apple [AAPL], if you could please stand). So, then, it seems we have a choice when we buy our devices: looks or usability.

This week, a company called Good OS announced their Cloud operating system, a bare-bones OS meant to run out of a browser window. Cloud takes the philosophy of software-as-service computing to its next logical step: pretty much everything a user needs to do can be accomplished with Web access. Cloud looks like a browser window, except with a dock of shortcuts at the bottom of the screen that links to Google [GOOG] services like Gmail, YouTube, Blogger and Docs.

It’s a great idea, but like software-as-service products in general, it probably won’t go very far. Good OS once sold a line of bland-looking Everex PCs with an older Good OS through Wal-Mart [WMT] for $200, but they were eventually removed from sale because customers weren’t buying them. If consumers’ tepid adoption of software-as-service and their distaste for simple, functional PCs is any indication, then the message is clear: people don’t want plain boxes that work well. Buyers want cool-looking boxes, even if they work like crap. (And when they do indeed work like crap, buyers will file a class action suit as if they’re surprised.)

It’s one thing to buy clothing, small appliances, or even TVs simply for flash, because they’re relatively inessential. But the car-buyer choosing his daily driver would never choose form over function, even if it was to be a company car he wasn’t paying for.

The smartphone market is another prime example. Google’s G1 didn’t get nearly the hype of RIM’s [RIMM] BlackBerry Storm, not because its Android OS works poorly – it’s actually great – but because the G1 looks like every other shoddy flip-out QWERTY phone on the market. Likewise, the Storm won’t ever out-sell the iPhone 3G, even though it can do a lot of stuff that the iPhone can’t: run background applications, take video, and support real push email. Why? Because its clicking screen and 10 hard-keys aren’t… cool. The Samsung Instinct, LG [LPL] Dare and the venerable Motorola [MOT] Razr were all big sellers, despite the fact that they are barely usable compared to some of their peers.

Need even more proof? BusinessWeek just reported in their InfoTech column this week that netbooks – those diminutive, cheap portable computers – will sell something like 11 million units this year. According to BW, brass at netbook-makers Asus and Acer estimate that 8-10% of netbook buyers would have bought full-sized, full-speed laptops if netbooks weren’t an option. Netbooks cost anywhere from $300-$600, even though they’re poorly spec’d compared to bigger entry-level laptops of roughly the same price.


To anyone who’s seen a netbook, that’s no surprise: they’re cheap, cool-looking, and light-weight. But to anyone who’s actually used a netbook, this news is maddening. Whether they’re running Linux or a shoe-horned version of Windows XP, and whether they have a 900MHz Intel [INTC] Celeron or a 1.6GHz Intel Atom chip, netbooks are ungodly slow. Impossibly slow. It’s-not-worth-the-weight-savings slow.

But did I mention they look cute?

I doubt that this happens because we find gadgets more temporary or disposable; plenty of cars are leased, and Honda Civics still outnumber Pontiac [GM] Solstices on the roads. And it’s not that gadgets are particularly cheap, either –- dropping $300 on a smartphone or $600 on a netbook isn’t much to scoff at, especially if we’re to want new ones every year. Perhaps we’re too friendly with our most essential toys, to the point that we accept their flaws as human, or show them pity when they’re taxed. Perhaps it’s time to raise our standards.

(Below, Good OS’s Cloud operating system.)


About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs.