Coffee Time: The Inevitable Form?

HP has been called out by many for having products that are extremely similar to Apple's. The Envy 15 shown above is a blatant rip-off of the MacBook Pro. The shape, placement of ports, size of the trackpad, shape of the keys, colors, materials, finishes, and radii of every component is similar, if not identical to Apple's (even the placement of gloss on the display is the same). Squint your eyes and they're indistinguishable.



Recently, laptops have become increasingly compact, making them more like our phones than traditional "computers". This has also made the design of these machines more difficult due to the limitation of space and layout of components. Heat and stress issues also become more pronounced as manufacturers force everything into tighter shells. This is the MacBook Air's internals and arguably, it has sparked the recent trend to build "ultrabooks". I'm not saying that Apple has invented this segment, but they have certainly popularized and created a new demand. 



Recently, HP launched their own ultrabook, the Envy Spectre XT. Just like the way the Envy 15 comes off like a MacBook Pro imitation, this feels too similar to the MacBook Air for comfort. Vice President of Industrial Design at HP, Stacy Wolff was recently questioned by Engadget on the similarities. Here is a quote:

The thing is that you have to design what's right, and that is that sometimes the wedge is the right solution, silver is the right solution. I see a lot of differences as much as the similarities. I think anybody that's close enough to the business sees that there are differences in the design. Ours is rubber-coated at the bottom. We use magnesium; they didn't do that -- they use CNC aluminum. We did a brush pattern on our product; they didn't. 

I don't think so. There is no doubt about it, this looks like a MacBook Air. Everything he has mentioned like the rubber bottom, the use of magnesium, and brushed textures don't hide the similarities. These differences are basically color, material and finish (CMF) differences. Designers go through CMF experimentations all the time during the development of a product. Apple may have even experiemented with identical materials as the Spectre XT. CMF is however only a part of what defines the design of a product. For example, cars are available in numerous colors and materials with different trim levels. This doesn't mean that a base Honda Accord in white with grey cloth doesn't look like a top of the line black Accord with black leather.

I'm not saying that the manufacturing processes and materials aren't fundamental parts of design. I'm saying that when something looks like something else, they simply look alike to the consumer. I also think when Wolff says, "close enough to the business ", it is inconsiderate. HP is making products for the consumer, not for people "close enough to the business". 

In short: A copy is a copy. 



He also says:

...there are a lot of similarities to everything in the market that's an Ultrabook today. It is not because those guys did it first; it's just that's where the form factor is leading it.

General similarity? Yes. But he isn't giving enough credit to the competing products. 

Here are three examples of MacBook Air competitors that don't look like Apple products. The NEC LaVie Z looks the most similar to the Air but still looks radically different. The Vaio Z looks almost nothing like the Air but is still very thin and notorious for being a powerful machine. Sony has also assisted cooling by cleverly adding feet to the rear edge of the display. Also notice how both the NEC and Sony have Apple-like chiclet keyboards yet don't look like copy-cats. Then we have Dell's Adamo that is completely unique despite having a machined aluminum body like the Air. How is it that the magnesium Spectre XT looks more alike to the Air than the Alumium Adamo? This is evidence of the flaw in HP's thinking. 

These laptops, particularly the Sony and Dell show that you can produce beautiful and unique products that are still functional. It is insulting for one to say that the form factor is preventing design innovation. This is why I respect the Z and Adamo's creators. You can see an effort to try something new. I don't see any of this in the Envy.  



This is the Sony Vaio X505 from 2004. Predates the MacBook Air by (an amazing) 4 years. This laptop is often brought out by people that claim that the MacBook Air isn't unique. Both the Sony and the Air share a wedge-like shape. However, that's where the similarities stop. The HP looks like a brother of the MacBook Air. The Air looks like a third cousin, twice removed to the Sony. 




Here is the Samsung N310 designed by Naoto Fukasawa to illustrate another point. It is very similar to the 2009 MacBook in general form but is still unique. A significant difference in radii is enough to make something look different. Says something about the Envy products. 



And here are three products (that I all love) of similar functionality and size, but with completely different designs. I get very angry when I see copycat products. It is impossible to design something that isn't influenced by anything but influence isn't the same as imitation. I hold the belief that good designers are capable of producing amazing and new products from similar components, as shown above. This is why I don't think HP is giving enough credit and respect to designers. To say that the Envy is unique is saying that imitation is all designers are capable of.