Collecting Pennies in Apple's Wake

The Apple vs. Samsung case has really focused attention on companies that copy, or closely follow, Apple's industrial design. Things blew up on the internet today regarding coverage of HP's new all-in-one desktop machine. Many sites were called out for not mentioning the resemblance of the new HP machine to Apple's Thunderbolt Display (or iMac) and its peripherals to Apple's wireless keyboard and Magic Trackpad.

Why are more and more computers looking more and more Apple-like? I don't think HP, or any other company, really want to copy Apple; I just don't think they have any other choice. I think the move towards Apple-like design is a simple reflection of Apple's increasing success and their ability to heavily influence the supply-chain and existing manufacturing capacity.

PC manufacturers operate on super-thin margins. They need to save money anywhere they can to turn a profit. Apple is amazingly efficient at controlling the supply-chain for its products and for scheduling, building, and tooling factories. I bet it's cheaper for HP to design and manufacture PCs that look like Apple products because they can take advantage of existing factory setups and economies-of-scale. If a factory has an entire production line setup to tool custom aluminum frames why would HP pay to build their own or retool an existing line to make plastic cases? HP may even be able to get deals on over-stocked resources such as aluminum or even piggy-back on Apple's economy-of-scale by using similar materials. I'm not an expert on manufacturing but I think this is one possible theory for why many tablets, phones, and computers are starting to look so heavily influenced by Jonathan Ive.

PC manufacturers have never cared about the industrial design of their products beyond function, why would they start caring about form now? They also aren't evolving their business practices so they need to continue to find ways to make money within their existing models. If you consider that most PCs on the market won't sell anywhere near the number of units that a comparable Apple product will sell I think this theory gets more plausible.

In the end I think this issue is primarily about companies like HP saving money in the manufacturing process, the way the have always done. The fact that these products take on a similar appearance to Apple's is just icing on the cake. HP and other PC manufacturers are no longer in a race to the bottom, they're in an uncontrolled free fall and trying to grab whatever money they can on the way down.