Thinking Beyond the Box: Microsoft Hardware-Design Competition Spurs Windows PC Innovation

REDMOND, Wash., Jan. 4, 2006 – Prashant Chandra’s idea for a new type of personal computer began taking shape when he was still in school in New Delhi, India and would misplace one of his paper notebooks or accidentally spill ink on an assignment.

The idea kept taking shape over the years, often at unlikely times. When Chandra would go jogging, he would think about alternatives when he would see young children carrying heavy book bags home from school. What was needed, Chandra realized, was a PC designed for teen-agers and college students to do academic work – and nothing else. Instead of traditional hard drives, it should include slots for students to plug in digital textbooks and notebooks, which could be stored on light-weight digital cards.

The idea would have remained nothing more than that – an idea – if Chandra, an industrial designer for a company in New Delhi with no ties to mainstream PC manufacturers, hadn’t seen an advertisement in a magazine last summer for the Next Generation Windows OS PC Design Competition.

Chandra’s “sChOOL Pak” PC is much more than an idea now. Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates selected it over the nearly 200 other entries to receive the Chairman’s Award, one of the inaugural PC-design contest’s four awards.

Kevin Eagan, general manager of Microsoft’s Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) Division, announced two of the four winners today at the 2006 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nev., spotlighting them as innovative new directions in PC design in front of the world’s media and electronics industry leaders. In addition to the Chairman’s Award that Chandra received, Sungho Son, a graduate student in industrial design at Purdue University, took home the Judge’s Award for a prototype “bookshelf” computer, which uses interchangeable components roughly the shape and size of a hardbound book to simplify management of digital content and copyrights. Two public choice awards, selected by visitors to the competition’s Web site,, will be announced on the site next week.

The winners announced at CES each will receive cash prizes of US$50,000; the public choice winners will receive $25,000 each. Also, the winning designs will be featured on the competition’s Web site for PC hardware manufacturers and others in search of novel, new designs.

Microsoft introduced the competition in 2005 in collaboration with the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) and two PC manufacturers, Dell and HP, to help commemorate the 20th anniversary of Microsoft Windows and the upcoming release of the next version of the operating system, Microsoft Windows Vista. Based on strong interest and positive feedback, Microsoft plans to hold the competition annually.

“We developed this competition to help PC makers and users think about the PC in new ways – in much the same way we are rethinking PC software with Windows Vista,” says Microsoft’s Eagan “The quality and sheer number of entries we received has proven that there’s a whole world of untapped talent and ideas for new PC designs just waiting for someone to harness them.”

Taking PCs beyond Utility to “Part of Everything We Do”

Although much has changed about the PC since its introduction, the components and basic design of most desktop systems haven’t.

The basic components – monitor, keyboard and central processing unit (CPU) – remain in many situations because they still are the best means of getting the latest technology to users at the lowest cost, says Ken Musgrave, director of industrial design and usability at Dell, Inc. and one of the expert judges for the PC design competition. “Much of the innovation in desktops has been focused on getting the benefit of greater computing power and value in the hands of more people.”

Another of the competition’s judges, Ruth J. Soénius, director of brand strategy for Siemens, compares the evolution of the desktop PC to that of the automobile. For decades, the earliest cars resembled the carts that horses pulled before the development of the internal combustion engine. But as the car became faster and offered more features, society became more mobile, and people began to accept – and expect — the design of the automobile to change, too.

“The PC is going through the same transformation,” Soénius says. “We are looking for ways to make the PC and other related technology more personalized and part of everything we do. We aren’t quite there yet, but we’re well on the way.”

Hardware manufacturers aren’t guiding this transformation alone. Software makers such as Microsoft maintain close relationships with their hardware partners to ensure tomorrow’s PCs accommodate future generations of software, Eagan says.

With the Tablet PC, Microsoft not only developed a new operating system, which allows the user to input both written and typed information, it worked closely with hardware manufactures to overcome many of the design issues that hamstrung previous tablet-style computing devices, Eagan says. Now, three years after the introduction of the first Tablet PCs, more than a dozen hardware manufacturers offer hundreds of different models.

In addition to lending a helping hand to hardware manufacturers, Microsoft has become a leader in hardware design in its own right, with its award-winning PC peripherals, including the first ergonomic keyboard and a variety of fashion-friendly and functional mice and other devices.

“Microsoft is well positioned,” Musgrave says, “to contribute to the overall hardware and software integration and ultimately the overall user experience.”

Looking for Innovation in More Places

IDSA President Ron Kemnitzer expects the Next Generation PC Design Competition to help create a public dialogue and an exchange of ideas that can help spur PC innovation.

By motivating designers outside of the hardware industry to share their ideas, Kemnitzer says, the competition has already demonstrated that “innovation comes from all places.” The competition now is providing hardware manufacturers an opportunity to further develop these innovations and advance their own products by purchasing the rights to the best of the entries, he says.

“Clearly, Microsoft is the leader in making personal computers more usable,” Kemnitzer says. “In doing this (competition), Microsoft is beginning to expose how things might be.”

Equally as important to designers such as Chandra and Son is the fact that the competition is open to more than established design teams. Without opportunities such as this, Chandra says, it is difficult for students and independent designers to attract the attention of large global manufacturers. “It’s kind of like an average guy trying to get the attention of some princess in another kingdom,” says Chandra, a lead industrial designer for Telserra India Pvt Ltd, who developed his entry at night and on the weekends.

Sungho Son of Purdue University won the Judge’s Award for a prototype “bookshelf” computer, which uses interchangeable components roughly the shape and size of a hardbound book to simplify management of digital content and copyrights.

“Competitions like this are important to young professionals like me to test, analyze and improve our design skills,” adds Son, who worked at an electronics design center in his native Korea before coming to the U.S. to attend Purdue. “These competitions give every design enthusiast a very fair, equal and just opportunity to make his idea ‘speak’ and get some much wanted recognition.”

Chandra and Son were far from the only designers outside of mainstream design circles with ideas on how the PC should evolve. Microsoft received 195 entries from 33 nations – with many coming from students and independent designers. Among those who inquired about the competition was a 14-year-old girl from India, while three of finalists attend Massey University’s College of Creative Arts in Auckland, New Zealand.

Although all of applications didn’t have the polish expected from professional designers, many of the underlying ideas were strong, the judges say. “The great idea is what you are after,” Soénius says. “Once you’ve got that, you can always hire somebody to massage it.”

Dell’s Musgrave was impressed by how many of the designers put people at the center of the technology, and looked to the PC to facilitate interaction between people in their daily lives. One of the 33 finalists proposed embedding computing technology into a triangular-shaped table top, allowing coworkers to more easily share digital files and information during meetings and interact while doing other work. The Confab Digital Dining Table, another design among the finalists, embeds similar technology into a dining-room table, so family members can simultaneously search the Internet, share digital pictures and music or challenge each other to multi-player electronic games on side-by-side embedded workstations. The PC Vet Kit proposed by another of the finalists contains instruments that can transfer the patient’s vital signs and other medical information via Bluetooth wireless technology to a Tablet PC inside the vet technician’s medical case.

Microsoft offered four categories for the entries – entertainment, communications and mobility and personal productivity and living/lifestyle – but kept the other guidelines purposely vague to provide the entrants the maximum creative space to innovate. This spawned an unexpected plant-friendly ecological theme among some of the entries. The Binary Plant PC proposed by one of the finalists allows the user to plug hardware into a central stem, the assembly lending “itself to the metaphor of … a growing and adaptive plant,” according to the designer. Another finalist proposed building a CPU into the base of an actual flower vase, so the owner could integrate it into any room in the house. A proposed Living PC would come with plant seeds and space to build a high-tech garden on and around the actual PC.

“It is truly astonishing to notice that there could be so many outstanding approaches to PC design that are so much different than those that are conventionally followed,” Chandra says. “I would highly recommend anyone in the IT industry and anyone else interested in PC design to see each and every entry. I’m sure they’ll be surprised to see the kind of ideas this competition has generated.”

Winners Confront Challenges, Bring Technology to Life

The winners received top marks from the judges because they directly addressed challenges faced by the PC industry and users, making intangible concepts such as digital copyrights more concrete for the average user.

The prototype PC developed by Son and his advisor Scott Shim, an assistant professor of industrial design at Purdue, allows users to add hard-disk drive (HDD) attachments to a shelf-like enclosure with a central processing unit. To watch movies, listen to music or play a computer game, people would purchase, borrow or rent secure hardware attachments with preloaded content-management functions. Digital content could be downloaded from a provider’s server – but not transferred to – a compatible PC by slipping the attachment into the expandable shelf unit.

Prashant Chandra’s “sChOOL Pak” PC was chosen by Microsoft’s Bill Gates as winner of the Chairman’s Award as part of the inaugural Next Generation Windows OS PC Design Competition, announced during the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Jan. 4, 2006.

Son came up with the idea early last year after noticing a movie-buff friend was keeping his large collection of laser discs, a precursor of the digital video disc (DVD), and his laser-disc player in storage. The friend told Son he still loved his laser discs and player, but no longer had room for them now that he owned a DVD player and was beginning to collect DVDs. In fact, the friend was beginning to purchase DVD versions of some of the movies he owned on laser disc.

Why, Son thought, should different formats and players stop his friend from watching the movies he already owned? If home electronics weren’t so bulky and digital copyrights were easier to maintain, his friend could easily rent or purchase digital copies of movies, music or other content and play them all on one device – and never worry about changes in media formats.

The bookshelf concept was nothing new to many of judges, including a few who have designed their own bookshelf prototypes. What distinguished Son’s design was its use of the secure, interchangeable attachments to control digital content rights and management, says Sam Lucente, director of brand design and experience for HP. With a little more effective use of color, materials and finishes, Son’s bookshelf PC could make an “iconic, world class design,” Lucente says.

According to Microsoft’s Eagan, Gates chose Chandra’s sChOOL Pak because he felt it captured a smart trend and pushed thinking about PC design beyond the obvious. In addition to limited storage and networking, Chandra’s PC includes two screens; one a Tablet PC-like screen for capturing hand-written notes and the other a traditional screen for reading digital texts and other materials. Rather than the business-like design of traditional laptops, the sChOOL Pak offers replaceable rubberized shells with hip exterior designs and straps so it could be worn like a backpack.

In addition to advancing the design of the Tablet PC, Gates felt Chandra’s design helps address multiple important technology issues for Microsoft, including helping people in underserved countries cross the “digital divide” by acquiring PC technology and allowing PC users everywhere to realize their potential through education and comfortably integrate computing throughout their increasingly mobile lifestyles.

Eagan says Microsoft created the two public-choice awards to recognize the importance of consumer taste and style – what’s often called the “cool” factor.

As might be expected from designers known for being a step ahead of the PC crowd, the winners of the inaugural competition have already set their sights on the future. Chandra is anxiously waiting for the day when one or more PC manufacturers adopt his PC design and he sees children in his neighborhood walking home from school with sChOOL Paks.

Son is anxious to begin using his prize money to do the hands-on research he relies on to uncover ways to improve existing computing devices and consumer electronics – or dream up with new ones.

“I need the money to buy new gadgets,” he says. “They stimulate and give me new ideas for future designs.”

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