Could Microsoft be passing Apple in product design? Ok that is probably pushing it and design is very subjective, however if you look at the hardware design of the Kinect hands free controller and that of the new Xbox 360 Slim, these things are damned attractive. Clean lines, an elegant edge to the Xbox with a clear automotive performance element; and Kinect is an elegant addition to a new HDTV. When has the word “elegant” ever really applied to a Microsoft product?
In fact, in looking at these products, who would have thought they would have come out of Microsoft, which often has quirky designs but seldom elegant ones. Microsoft building something that looks as attractive as an Apple product, or to my eye (I’m a fan of gloss black) better, would be as impossible as Apple building a product that could interoperate with a product from another PC hardware company. In other words I didn’t think it was possible – yet here we are.
Let’s talk Microsoft and design this week.
Microsoft Design: Historically Two Beers Short of a Six-pack
Microsoft has had some truly horrible products in the market over the last several decades. One of the most memorable was the Microsoft PC phone they brought out in the 90’s. This thing was big, clunky, and required a Windows 95 PC to work properly. No one had figured out that the PC had to be running for the phone to work properly and running stable wasn’t something Windows 95 did for long periods of time well.
Microsoft keyboards and mice generally were workman like and not very attractive, the best looking last decade was their Bluetooth Keyboard and Mouse which had kind of a transparent blue color. Problem is, like most Bluetooth products of its time, it truly sucked to use.
The first generation Xbox was basically a box with benefits. It had an “X” molded into the top, but by any measure, unless you really loved clunky boxes, it wasn’t very attractive. The second generation was better, but white was hardly a color that was catching on in the living room outside of Asia and when they went black ,they went kind of stealth black; the product wasn’t ugly but it was hardly up to Apple’s levels.
The first generation Zune, particularly in Brown (which Microsoft thought was the new black and it turned out to be the old turd brown) looked like something that the military would give to soldiers in the field if they were pacifists. It was as ugly as it was study and while the second generation Zune was better, it still looked rather lame against Apple’s offerings.
However, things evidently are a changing.
Is Microsoft Finally Getting Design?
I’m typing this off a relatively new Microsoft X4 gaming keyboard. It is high gloss black, not overlay expensive at $47.90 and has adaptive backlit keys. It has straight lines and it is surprisingly elegant. To my eye, the current generation Zune is easily a match for the current generation iPod touch. Nice use of metals and paint, very easy user interface, and a nice set of attractive accessories.
However, now that we’ve seen the Xbox 360 slim and Kinect, it is clear they have taken things up a level. Both products are high gloss black and appear consistent with the new TVs they will find themselves next to. Lines are clean and the cooling grill on the Xbox is swept up and long aggressive as do the lines of the new Xbox Slim which remind me just a little of Audi.
Kind of makes me look forward to the next generation Zune and suggests coming keyboards and mice will be very attractive as well. In the end, I think this is the first time we’ve been able to refer to the Xbox as an elegant design. If you get a chance to see it in person let me know what you think.
Wrapping Up: One Less Thing to Pick on Microsoft for?
Granted these latest products will never run head-to-head with Apple but they certainly do look to be in line with some of Sony’s better offerings and are something a user would likely be proud to show off. This suggests that Microsoft can now retire the line, “We are a software company, of course all of our hardware looks like crap”, because it doesn’t anymore.