Technology Is Fashion, So What Are You Wearing?

The benchmark of a successful analyst is how well you're able to predict the future and the quality of the advice you give on the strength of your analysis.

While I was at Gartner Group Inc., my team wasn't wrong often, but here's one situation in which we totally missed the ball. A vendor was briefing us in late 1997 and, as part of its pitch, presented the idea of launching a line of computers targeted at nontechnical users, particularly women and children. The systems would be available in a multitude of colors and shapes and marketed through venues such as Vogue and Cosmopolitan rather than traditional outlets such as industry trade magazines and computer stores. At the end of the vendor representatives' presentation, my colleagues and I were asked to evaluate the idea. Without any hesitation we responded with the tact that only a group of industry analysts can bear: "That's the dumbest idea we ever heard," "No one will buy a computer because it comes in five delicious fruit flavors." The vendor recanted the idea, and our analysis proved accurate - that is, until Steve Jobs and the iMac came along. Thus, technology as fashion was born.

Stylish Technology

It wasn't too long ago that all computers were created equal. PCs were PCs. If you wanted a server, you turned the box on its side. A workstation? You painted it black. If you needed a portable, you slapped a handle on the top. Today, technology is as much about fashion and style as it is about feeds and speeds.

Companies such as Palm Inc. and Handspring Inc. trumpet not only the functionality of their systems but also the fine colors they come in or the fine-grained leather cases that can hold them, from vendors such as Coach and Dooney & Bourke.

The latest merging of fashion and technology is, of course, Palm's announcement of a special Claudia Schiffer version of the Palm V. Nearly every gadget you can think of today comes in translucent iMac-inspired colored plastic, prompting the age-old saying that beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.

So what led to this? Why did fashion emerge and technology take a back seat to the superficial? First, as the benefits of Moore's Law became less relevant to users, vendors needed to differentiate systems any way they could. Second, the markup on accessories is huge. There's far more markup on a leather case for a Palm Vx than there is on a Palm Vx 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 can buy just about any combination of technology gadgets in just about any form factor you like (with the exception of the shoe phone, which I have been patiently waiting for since 1968).

But Don't Forget Function

Business users need to pay attention to this trend as well. Users are increasingly technology savvy (just check the number of issues of Computerworld that come into your mail room and where they go) but even more fashion savvy.

The number of requests for new systems that match decor or dress is climbing in ever-increasing numbers. Information technology organizations must realize that fashionable technology is often unsuitable for business use. Systems that flaunt fashion over function often aren't network-tested or certified for business use. Consumer systems and gadgets often lack the component standardization and support that business users need and should be avoided. As for me, I'm off to order a new Corinthian leather case for my personal digital assistant.

So what technology are you wearing this season? Send me your best technology and fashion stories, and I'll share them in an upcoming column.

MICHAEL GARTENBERG, former vice president and research area director at Gartner Group Inc., is a partner in Dellet LLC, a venture capital firm in Englewood, N.J., that focuses on the Israeli market. Contact him at michaelg@dellet.com.

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