Intel has designs on Apple

The chipmaker is the nearest thing the fragmented, commoditised world of PCs has to a field marshal in the upcoming design-based war with Apple

Intel Developer Forum (IDF) just would not be the same without them: every six months or so, some vice-president at the chip giant draws the short straw and has to get up onstage to show off the latest concept PCs.

It's a tradition that stretches back years and, like all the best traditions, there was little good reason to do it -- other than, perhaps, to embarrass senior executives. All that changed when the iPod came along: Apple's digital music player demonstrated conclusively that good design is no longer just a luxury add-on for the well-heeled elite.

Previous concept PCs, at past IDF events, were often laughable. They were a chance for designers -- routinely constrained by cost-conscious PC manufacturers and buyers -- to cut loose. Freed from the bean counters' baleful glare, we saw systems resembling jukeboxes, 60s furniture -- even the monster from Alien. But this year, no one is laughing any more.

Apple has upset the PC applecart. The potential of the immaculately designed Mac mini to replicate the runaway popularity of the iPod threatens to do serious damage to the closed, commoditised world of standard PCs. And that has Intel worried. Why else would it forgo the usual opportunity to let designers go crazy, in favour of exhibiting a concept that is almost a carbon copy of the Mac mini? Intel has realised that design matters to consumers, and is using this year's IDF to communicate its concerns to the rest of the industry in no uncertain terms.

The Mac mini is destined to find a home in education and business; it's small, quiet, integrated and, well, gorgeous. Crucially, it is also cheap (although prices do rocket as you add options) and the whole system works better than any collection of off-the-shelf components shoehorned into a case and topped off with a copy of Windows.

This year's concept PC is Intel's attempt to step into the leadership chasm at the heart of the PC industry. The commoditised nature of the market with its razor-thin margins means that, two decades on, no PC maker has full control over every part of the design, from motherboard to case design -- let alone operating system to applications. But Apple has shown that design is no longer a luxury: it's fundamental, and Intel is probably the only organisation capable of communicating the need for good design to an increasingly fragmented PC industry. Let's hope the PC makers are listening.


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