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HP's Whitman promises 'more beautiful' PCs

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Building PCs and laptops that are better looking and more instantly recognizable to consumers is a key component of HP's strategy to turn around its struggling PC division, according to CEO Meg Whitman.

"I don't think we kept up with the innovation," Whitman said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. "The whole market has moved to something that is more beautiful."

By "the whole market," she means the pack of electronics manufacturers, both in the US and overseas, who are increasingly looking to Apple for inspiration for their products – to say nothing of ways to woo Cupertino's affluent customer base.

While the PC market has been soft for most manufacturers of late – HP's own PC revenues were down 10 per cent in its most recent quarter – Apple has been the notable exception, with Mac sales showing modest gains despite luxury-item pricing.

Todd Bradley, who heads HP's PC division, told the Journal that customers are less focused on price and components in today's market. "People want elegant products that they're proud to carry," he said.

Whitman said she noticed that HP was lagging behind in the industrial design stakes as soon as she joined the company and was issued a corporate laptop. "They gave me a brick," she said.

To remedy the situation, Whitman has beefed up its PC design team, opening two new design centers and adding some 30 staffers. Heading up the makeover effort is Stacy Wolff, a longtime HP exec who is now the company's VP of design.

According to Wolff, HP is going for a "cleaner, more minimalistic look" for its new PCs and laptops – qualities that have been Apple hardware trademarks for many years. That includes things such as a new, standardized color palette for HP gear, as well placing things such as power buttons and AC connectors in consistent places across multiple models.

HP isn't the only company turning to design as a way to revitalize PC sales. Intel is arguably trying to drag the entire laptop industry into the modern design era, kicking and screaming, with its MacBook Air–cloning Ultrabook push.

As Samsung recently found out, it's not always wise to try to emulate Apple's successes too closely, as Cupertino is more than willing to use its patent portfolio to protect its industrial design advantage.

But there's another problem facing HP, which is that in Apple's most recent quarter it sold 4.25 times as many iPads as it did Macs, and 6.5 times as many iPhones. HP's past efforts in the consumer tablet and smartphone markets have been mostly disastrous, leaving it ill-prepared to compete with Apple as consumer buying trends shift from traditional PCs to mobile devices.

HP is rumored to be planning to take another crack at the consumer tablet market soon, and Whitman says an HP smartphone is even in the works, but the hour is getting late. HP can build all the "elegant" laptops it wants, but if it misses the post-PC train, it could soon be left with a product line that looks as passé as last year's designer shoes. ®

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