Home > IT Industry > Comment: Style deficiency (for women) in high-end consumer electronics

Comment: Style deficiency (for women) in high-end consumer electronics

Today I’m gonna be p**sed off in my blog. The time has come to replace my ageing laptop, which at 4 years old finally bit the bullet a couple of weeks ago, when a power cord wrapped around my office chair gave it a sharp tug across the desk as I got up, rendering the hard disk dead.

But that’s not what I’m disgruntled about. What’s bugging me after researching possible replacements is the same thing that bugged me last year when I replaced my cellphone: all the high-end devices are stylistically designed for men.

Back in 2001 – when nearly all cellphones were black – I needed a new phone with three key requirements: tri-band for use in the US and Europe, an infrared modem for use with my Palm Pilot, and voice-activated dialling so I didn’t have to mess with the interface while walking down the street making several fast calls in a row. There were a few phones out there that met the requirements. There was only one that wasn’t black – the Motorola Timeport 250e – which came in silver and had deep curved edges. I bought one and struggled with the sub-standard interface for a few years. Of course, there were plenty of phones with changeable faceplates in every colour you could imagine, there were also phones with curvy keys, cute clamshells with circular clocks on the front et al, and of course, they were all at the low-to-medium end of the market in terms of technical specs. None of them met my functional requirements.

In 2003 I was travelling alot and needed a high performance all-purpose laptop to use as my main PC. This would include entertainment as well as development work. Laptops were basically only available in two colours so I didn’t think about it much at the time, but out of black and silver I prefer silver, and picked up an Acer TravelMate 800, a Centrino device in brushed silver, which I would describe as relatively unisex in design.

By 2006 when I replaced my phone, I had become alot more style-conscious and was irritated to find that nothing had really changed since 2001. This time I had suffered the recent failure of several devices – an old Olympus C100 camera (gold plastic), my Palm m500 (matt silver) and an ancient MP3 CD player (dark grey). I decided I didn’t use any of those devices hard enough to warrant buying separates and that a compromise combo device would be fine, but that I wanted 3G network access. I’m not a photographer, and my laptop had largely replaced the use of my Palm.

I trawled round phone shops for a week with my girlfriend (before you ask, I’m bisexual; no stupid “lesbians are alright with me” comments please); I instructed her to point out any girly-looking phones that I didn’t spot and she did an admirable job of that, the trouble was none of them had a decent MP3 player, camera and PDA features. I played with her feminine-looking phone which had a capable MP3 player and PDA, but only a dismal 0.3 MP camera with no flash, and no UMTS support. In the end, I sacrificed form in favour of function as I usually resign to do, and picked up a Nokia N70, available in “masculine” silver and the most disgusting shade of champagne gold you’ve ever seen. Compared to my friends’ phones, this phone is a brick with a square body, square screen and square keys. It’s a man’s phone, and that’s really annoying.

So you might be saying to yourself right now, “well, whenever I’m in town or at my local nightclub, the women always have crappy girly-phones, so they’re obviously more interested in form than function, or not very demanding users.”. Wrong. Women care about function in the same proportion men do; there’s a few reasons why those low-spec phones are so popular with women and I’m going to dispel a few popular myths about this now.

I’m going to draw some parallels between males and females below. Before anyone complains about me creating sweeping stereotypes, let me just say that you can’t apply statistics to the individual. Everyone is different; these comparisons are just the overall picture as I see it. I’m only going to talk about phones but this applies equally to other electronic devices.

Most women don’t have high demands in what a phone does. True. Neither do most men. Most people, regardless of gender, generally want a phone that makes calls, sends SMS, and sometimes takes pictures and stores a modest amount of music. Practically all phones can do this reasonably well (picture quality excepting), so you are left to choose from dozens upon dozens of low-end phones. Men, as well as women, will choose one that is most visually and ergonomically pleasing to them. This means that men end up with cheap and nasty Nokia and Sony Ericsson models that all look like little black and silver boxes, and women end up with cheap and nasty models that look feminine. That’s what each gender prefers on average, and this group represents the vast majority of consumers of both sexes.

Most women don’t know anything about technical things. True. Neither do most men. If you need proof of this, work in a technical support call centre for 6 months. It is always the men who ask the stupidest questions and it’s always the men who reformat their hard disks then can’t get their PCs to work again. Go onto the street and ask the average guy what Bluetooth is, what resolution a 2 megapixel camera takes pictures at, or what the difference between GPRS and EDGE is. They don’t know, just like most women don’t know either.

Myth: Women don’t use electronic gizmos as much as men so there is less market for feminine-styled devices. Wrong. When I was at University between the years 1998-2003, I would estimate that about 80% of the campus’s population of 9,000 females had a PC, and far more of them had notebooks than desktops. Women account for 55% of gross revenue from sales over the internet (2006) – that is, women spend more money on the internet than men do. And, as I’m sure all you guys know, we love to talk, so although I don’t have any firm figures, you can be fairly confident that most women use their phones to chat more than men do.

Myth: Wanting a device to look stylish is a superficial thing that only women look for. Wrong. Men look for stylish devices too, we just have different ideas about what constitutes good style. Our devices also serve a dual purpose – as well as being functional, we want them to be fashion accessories as well. That’s not a superficial need: men look good carrying black laptops and phones around with them because they typically wear clothes that match – whether you guys realise it or not – and you won’t find too many men walking around with bright multi-coloured devices for that reason; it’s considered unstylish (by men). Women wear clothes with a much greater variety of colour on average, our bodies also have more curves and less well-defined edges, so walking around with square black boxes doesn’t fit in with the rest of our appearance. I don’t think there’s anything superficial about wanting to look good; if you look good, you feel good.

? A lower percentage of women than men have a demand for high-end devices ? I don’t know the answer to that, but for either gender, the percentage is very small compared to the total market size, so in either case, not many high-end models are being sold. Men are more vocal about their high spec gadgets so we tend to hear about it more – guys talk about their gadgets, girls use them. The number of people with a Nokia N-series phone pales compared to the number of people walking around with Nokia 66xx models for example, at least here in Norway.

Where men and women differ when they do have clear-cut requirements is in their ability to translate those requirements into technical specifications. Men say “I want a laptop with a 100GB HD, a 1920×1200 display and a minimum 4 hour battery life.”. Women say “I want a laptop that has enough room for all my pictures and music, a screen that is good enough to watch movies on, and that will last long enough for me to get from London to Leicester on the train.”. Men seem to be better at pattern translation in this respect, but that does not mean that women are less demanding consumers. That segment of the female market with clear requirements has the same urgency of meeting those requirements as the male segment.

So, at the low-end of the market where the majority of both males and females lie, things are pretty much equal and you can get a device that looks the way you want it to. It’s at the high-end where there is stylistic divergence – seemingly almost to the point of discrimination – and everything becomes black and silver bricks.

This isn’t good enough! As I described above, some women want high-end devices just like men do. Why can’t we have them in trendy colours and styles? Why do we have to sacrifice function for form?

My requirements for my new laptop are alot different to the one I currently have. I want a device that is very small and light, with always-on internet access while travelling, preferably tablet-convertible for jotting notes and reading web sites in portrait mode, but that’s only a strong preference. It doesn’t need high-end graphics or sound, it’s just going to be used for office work and leisure reading.

One laptop I’d like is the Fujitsu Siemens LifeBook P1610. It’s a convertible tablet PC, it has a great feature set, but it looks like a picture frame, and comes in any colour as long as it’s black. Of particular insult, on the same page on Fujitsu Siemen’s web site is an advert for “Get into Pink Computing”, a campaign for the LifeBook P Series – although when you click the link it only actually covers the P7230 and not the model I actually wanted, of course. The P7230 – normally only available in black – will be supplied in a limited edition run in pink. Well, it looks cool and all, but it’s bigger and heavier than the P1610 and not a tablet, so it doesn’t meet my requirements. But, dig a little deeper and look at the published spec:

Fujitsu Siemens’ Get into Pink Computing campaign (June 2007) – but only if you want one specific laptop model with the lowest available spec, otherwise you have to buy a black one

Processor – Intel® Core Solo U1400 Ultra Low Voltage Processor (1.20 GHz, 2 MB L2 cache, 533 MHz FSB) or Intel Core Duo U2500 Ultra Low Voltage Processor (1.20 Ghz, 2MB L2 cache, 533 MHz FSB; not available as an option for pink unit).
Hard Drive – 80 GB (not available on pink unit), 60 GB or 40 GB; (4200 rpm) P-ATA Ultra DMA 100; shock-mounted, and protected by intelligent shock sensor technology
Wireless Communications – Intel® PRO/Wireless 3945BG Network Connection (Tri-Mode 802.11a/b/g), or Atheros Super AG® Wireless LAN (802.11a/b/g, not an available option on pink unit).

So what am I to conclude here? That it’s okay for women to have a stylish pink notebook but only if it has a lower spec? For goodness sake, the P7230 is a high-end notebook, either make all options available for both colours, or if you’re strapped for cash, make the pink model have the highest spec, not the lowest. And why are you running this promo on one out of your dozens of models? Aren’t women allowed to have a stylish pink tablet PC? I’m assuming in all this that the pink notebook is actually targeted at women; there are two women smiling at the notebook on the page and I can’t imagine many men will be impressing their business colleagues with a pink notebook anytime soon.Other companies aren’t blameless either. Panasonic have a really sexy series of sub-notebooks – the R series – with a cute curvy case, very dainty at 23cm wide and available in no less than 11 colours (including pink and a nice brushed metallic pale green)! But, what’s this? They’re only sold in Japan. Why? What did Japanese women do to deserve cute notebooks that those of us in the Western world can’t have – or shouldn’t I ask? (yes, I’m aware they can be imported, that’s not the point) Of course it’s not a tablet so it doesn’t meet my requirements anyway.

Italian company Holbe Dialogue have got the right idea. Every model in their Flybook range (including notebooks and tablet PCs) is available in different colours – albeit not the same colour range on each model – but at the very least you can have red, which is alot better than black for the average woman who has to carry it around in public. The high-end tablet model – the Flybook V5 – is available in black, silver, gold and pink, but sadly the resolution is only 1024×600, which in portrait mode is going to be too narrow to read most web sites, I imagine.

So, what am I to do? I can have superb form and function with the Panasonic R6 but lose out on having tablet functionality; I can have form and tablet capability with the Flybook V5 but lose out on usability because of the narrow portrait mode display; or I can have function and tablet capability with the LifeBook P1610, and walk around with a black brick in my hand all day. Oh well, at least it will match well with my cellphone…

Please leave your comments below – especially if you’re a notebook manufacturer who wants to custom-build me a pink tablet PC 🙂

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