Suede may be the new beige when it comes to PC design. Or perhaps leopard skin laptop.

Taking a cue from the consumer electronics business, PC makers are looking to doll up the dull boxes that most people associate with a personal computer.

Companies such as Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ), as well as microprocessor companies Intel ( INTC) and Advanced Micro Devices ( AMD), are taking steps to introduce notebooks that are as much fashion statements as they are tools of productivity.

In addition, Dell's ( DELL) recent acquisition of Alienware, which sells PCs in unique colors and unconventional shapes, should pave the way for industrial design and fashion to play a more prominent role in the computer industry.

While these hip-looking PCs may earn style points among the aesthetically inclined, their biggest impact could be on the financial side of the business.

For a PC industry struggling to find new ways to grow, a little style could go a long way toward altering consumers' buying habits.

According to Rich Black, marketing director at notebook maker Acer, innovative industrial design and style play an increasingly important role in consumer purchasing decisions.

"As people are starting to become more and more mobile with their computing devices, they want something that looks a little different than what the guy next to them has," says Black.

Acer introduced a special Ferrari-branded notebook a few years ago and has recently started to incorporate elements from that model, like carbon-fiber material, into its mainstream line of notebooks.

The value of pumping out a steady stream of slick new product designs has been proven in the cell-phone business.

New phone styles are one of the two main factors that prompt people to replace their cell phones (the other being new functionality), says Hugues de la Vergne, an analyst at industry research firm Gartner.

"To a certain segment of the population having the latest, must-have phone is important and will cause them to upgrade," says de la Vergne, pointing to the popularity of Motorola's ( MOT) Razr phone as an example.

Simply Irreplaceable?

North American consumers replace their cell phones every 18 months to 24 months on average, according to research firm Gartner.

By contrast, generally in the PC world, people replace their systems every three-and-a-half to four years.

Acer's Black says he believes that could change, with notebook prices becoming more affordable and vendors focusing more on design. "I think notebooks are getting to the point where people do consider them replaceable every few years," Black says, acknowledging that he doesn't expect notebooks to become as frequently replaced as cell phones.

To counter the steadily shrinking pool of first-time buyers in the U.S., PC vendors will likely offer more enticements for consumers to replace their computers. According to Gartner, there were already 847 PCs for every 1,000 people in the U.S. at the end of 2005.

This saturation has begun to manifest itself in sales rates. Gartner estimates that PC shipments will increase 10.7% in 2006, compared with 15.5% growth the year before.

PC vendors can look overseas for untapped markets of first-time buyers, but boosting sales in the U.S. means convincing people to buy additional PCs.

"If you could get people to replace faster, you could presumably raise the long-term growth," says Gartner analyst George Shiffler.

Traditionally, PC replacements have been spurred by the introduction of faster microprocessors or new technology, such as a new operating system.

Intel says it's focused on introducing new capabilities, such as the wireless networking and improved battery life of its Centrino platform, as a means of enticing people to replace their notebooks.

"Having more capabilities in the platform is really what drives people to buy," says Erik Reid, the director of product marketing for Intel's mobile platforms group.

But Reid says that personalizing the look and feel of laptops also plays a role. In November, Intel teamed up with a unit of Japanese synthetics company Toray Industries to develop a reference design for "ultrafashionable" notebooks in which the computer's casing is made of a special fabric called ultrasuede.

Intel says a handful of PC makers is considering building products based on the ultrasuede design -- initially to be sold in the Asian market -- though it is not saying which companies.

H-P also sees potential in making PCs more fashionable. After successful experiments with creative PC styles, such as its Lance Armstrong-branded notebook, H-P will unveil new products in the coming months that push the design envelope even further, says Bruce Greenwood, the consumer notebook division's director of marketing.

"It's clear that the design, the look of the computers are more relevant and more apparent than we've seen in desktops," says Greenwood. Design may not be the prime reason people replace their notebooks, the way it can be with cell phones, he says, but it's becoming "higher in the relevant scale to the consumer."

Greenwood and others point out that fundamental industry differences make it unlikely that there will ever be a point where consumers replace their notebooks as frequently as they do their cell phones.

Most importantly, says Greenwood, cell-phone handsets are heavily subsidized by wireless service providers, making it much less expensive for consumers to upgrade to new models.

But even that could change, as the presence of wireless features in notebooks narrow the gap between the PC industry and the cell-phone industry.

In recent months, Lenovo has announced ThinkPad notebooks with built-in, high-speed wireless service from both Cingular Wireless and Verizon Wireless ( VZ).

In January, H-P introduced a notebook with integrated high-speed wireless service from Verizon. Owners of these laptops can access the broadband network for $60 to $80 a month.

As notebooks become associated with some type of service plan, there's a potential for PC replacement sales to follow the cell-phone path, with upgrades offered as part of a package, says Current Analysis mobile computing analyst Sam Bhavnani.

This could prove particularly well-suited for small businesses with little time or resources to worry about technology issues.

"There's room for a Toshiba or Lenovo to come in and say 'Hey we make it simple. This is our plan. Sign up for two years, and when that two years is expired we send you a new system,'" says Bhavnani.

Of course, the novelty of this business model for PC vendors means it will probably take a few years for it to develop, he adds.

But for PC makers, the future is all about fashion.

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