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Jason Kao

ON APPEARANCES AND COMPUTERS: A look at business and personal computing
- By Jason Kao

I <3 computers I am very grateful to have grown up around computers. My first dosage was playing MSDOS games off 5 floppy disks on my Dad's 286. Soon, I found myself sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to turn on the PC, dial into AOL, and download software off newsgroups. My world was flipped upside down with the introduction of Napster and Britney Spears, and my knowledge expanded with high school programming classes and writing for

I have made mistakes, like starting my own review website just to get hardware, and made good on them, like writing 50+ reviews and editorials later on. I have experienced computers first hand in several ways-software programming, hardware troubleshooting, web design, internet research, data mining-and at the same time I know so much more exists.

But after my junior year in high school and working at Princeton University and PlanetLab, one thing was painfully obvious to me. I'm passionate about computers, but I see it more as hobby, less as a profession. If you give me a $3000 budget to build a dream computer for someone, I will gladly oblige for free. But tell me to figure out how to write a Linux driver for a specific Bluetooth mouse and-poof-I'll vanish.

Show me the money Today, I am a sophomore at NYU's Stern School of Business. I plan to major in finance and computer science. I have two jobs, one working for a private equities firm and the other for an experiential marketing firm. Two things I've already learned: a) formal education builds a foundation, but nothing beats on-the-job experience and building relationships with people you work with, and b) being good with computers makes you very popular.

Every aspect of business I've studied and experienced has shown me understanding appearances is crucial for achieving success. The stock market rises and falls based on peoples' perceptions of future growth. If the majority of people say buy, the market will rise, even if fundamental analysis says sell. A company can beat earnings expectations but still fall one or two points if the consensus is the company appears to have little room to grow next year. 95% of what determines closing a deal or losing one is what you wear, what you eat, what jokes you tell, and how you smell during a client meeting.

Beyond business, image has a tremendous psychological effect on the human mind. If you wakeup from a nightmare, your morning might be hell. If you wakeup to your loving border collie licking your face, you'll probably be happy. Applied to computers, appearances largely determine if your software or hardware will be used. At the same time, how you see your computer setup largely determines how efficient a worker you are.

Appearances sell. Appearances make people happy.

I'm going to investigate these two notions in depth, first from a business owner's perspective, then from a personal user's perspective. No matter who you are-an entrepreneur, marketing consultant, computer programmer or student-understanding how appearances affect the mindset of the consumer and end user will give you an edge over the uninformed when buying computers, selling computers or just improving your quality of life.

Part I: From a business perspective
Appearances may not be everything, but it certainly is one of many factors which determine whether or not you buy, use and support a product. This principle applies to everything, ranging from food and clothing to cell phones and computers. The situation isn't so clear cut, however, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In tangible terms, this idiom simply describes the situation where I may love pink RAZRs but you think they're horrendous.

Okay-I'm not a fan of pink RAZRs. But you can bet there is a sufficient number of people who are, otherwise Motorola would never market and sell them. So far I've described appearances in its primary, most obvious sense-physical appearances. That is black or white iPods, standard or slim PlayStation2s, and wireless or corded mice. Often times, form meets function and physical appearance is directly correlated with a product's advantages. For instance, small and wireless devices are extremely mobile. And if we extrapolate differences in physical appearances across competing products, like black-plastic Dell flat panels versus silver-aluminum Apple displays, we can see why people prefer one product over the other.

Underneath the skin
From a more abstract perspective, appearances convey a product's intrinsic value with consumers. Widely recognized appearances signal strong reception and vice versa. This is where brand image comes into play. An established product's brand name is arguably its biggest asset, and is the first thing people recognize when they look at a product. My brain automatically associates white headphones with Apple iPods, quad exhausts and fender stripes with BMW M automobiles, and blue and black routers with Linksys. This isn't because these companies have gone out of their way to market these characteristics. Instead, over time the general public has recognized these companies as market leaders and has subconsciously linked these characteristics with their industry leadership.

So then the question arises: which is more important? Physical traits like color and size and things that dictate functionality, or traits that build brand image? I don't have a concrete answer to this question. My feeling is no specific answer exists. Every business is in a different situation. Some have to deal with rivalry among competition, while others have extreme market power. Occasionally, businesses have to deal with overly powerful suppliers, or must cater to dominant buyers.

Walking the thin line Every tech business has to the walk the thin line between design and practicality. You can have the most beautiful rendering of a product in the world, but give it to an engineer and you're idea may get completely shut down. I've seen the shift from concept and design to detailing and budgeting with my own eyes, and I can tell you-emphatically-it is a painful process. Anticipate it, however, convert conflict into excitement and feed off the energy, and chances are, you'll find your way towards building an appealing product, strong brand image and most importantly, achieving success.

Part II: From a personal perspective
For the second part of this article, I'm going to shift to how we can use what we know about appearances to better our quality of life. For those of you who are still using CRT displays or keyboards and mice over two years old, this especially applies to you. For everyone else, you surely know people who are in similar situations and this is your opportunity to help.

Bagel day, free soda and Dell 1907FPs
I stepped into my equities firm the other day and was dumbfounded by a pyramid of Dell XPS desktops and 19" flat panels. There was more than $20,000 worth of Intel Core Duo processors, NVIDIA 7900 GTX graphics cards, gigs of ram and LCDs sitting in a ten foot radius. This didn't make too much sense to me because traders were already using Pentium Ds with 7800 GTXs.

However, it became clear to me over the next couple days this computer upgrade wasn't an investment in technology. No, the upgrade was really an investment in the dedicated individuals who come in everyday at 7AM and stay till after the market close to do research for the following day. From a technical standpoint, the new computers are only marginally faster and their power will never be fully utilized. But as I watched one trader's enthusiasm in the morning when he was told he was getting a new machine and two new displays (in addition to his existing six), and then watched him go home that day with a positive P&L of $16,000, I realized the return on investment of this expensive and seemingly impractical upgrade is actually enormous. People get excited over bagel day, a new flavor of coffee, sunflower seeds, watermelon gum and free soda. They also get excited over new computer equipment.

Excitement leads to positive attitudes which lead to cooperation and greater worker efficiency. I have found that when people are happy, they make money. And more importantly, shouldn't we all be happy?

But I'm not Warren Buffet
Granted, most people don't have the budget to upgrade to the latest and greatest hardware and software. But that shouldn't discourage you from changing the appearance of your setup. There are cheap upgrades, like a new $30 mouse or keyboard, and pricier but even more valuable upgrades, like a new $150 flat screen. Knowing the market is very helpful in determining when the time is right to buy a new piece of hardware. But never be bitter about buying something then watching its price fall the following week, because what matters is what your purchase is worth to you. And surely, you wouldn't have purchased it if it wasn't worth it. Of course, watching the price rise indicates you've done your research and saved yourself a little money.

Upgrading an input device, or something you rely on or use every single day like a printer or set of speakers can lift your entire attitude. That, in my book, is a worthy upgrade.

Msstyles and you
Alternatives to refreshing your computing experience and playing off the power of appearances lies in customizing your desktop. The vast majority of computer users agree OSX is beautiful and Windows is bland. Vista, heading our way, is on track to change user perceptions of Microsoft's GUI. But why wait for OS upgrades when you can take control of your computer's graphical interface now? You are accustomed to personalizing wallpapers and screensavers. Well, take one step further and customize your Windows themes, cursors, fonts and icons. Move the start menu around, pin new programs and delete useless ones. Group your desktop icons by category, setup shortcuts to make your life easier and map those network folders that you navigate to through My Network Places everyday as network drives.

You don't have to be computer savvy to do these things. I taught my father how to run a msstyles patcher for Windows XP SP2 and showed him where to discuss and download themes. Later, I customized my coworker's laptop with an OSX theme as well as matching icons and cursors, and now he spends part of his lunch hour everyday looking for new themes that catch his interest. Both my father and my coworker, who spend hours everyday staring at their computer, now spend hours everyday staring at a prettier computer. And the benefit, though immeasurable, is certainly there.

I'm sure many people think upgrading a display, changing out an old mouse, or customizing your desktop are no-brainer suggestions and plain silly. For these people, they are. But I guarantee you there are exponentially more people who don't know this advice, or think it unnecessary. Push your neighbor to make smart upgrades, practice them yourself, and make computing a better experience for everyone.

Final words
Appearances motivate us to buy and use certain computer products over others. They are linked to features which create benefits that persuade us to spend our hard-earned cash on things we technically may not need. And the appearances of these successful products build brand image-a critical asset to develop if you want to sell on a nationwide or global scale.

Appearances also motivate us to work harder and happier. Customizing them gives us a sense of ownership over our virus-prone, pop-up frenzy and blue-screening workstations. Such personalization is major impetus for many of us to take care of our machines, preemptively saving ourselves from a lot of headache. Elevating our quality of computing is a benefit that is immeasurable in dollar figures, and explains why we buy those things we technically don't need.

Finally, appearances reveal why people modify Civics, wear Armani suits or boycott McDonalds. It's all about proving a point-visually. Computers is one of the most customizable industries out there, and this is your opportunity to take advantage of it, through business and/or personal computing.

References: | Scholarship 2006 Winners and Participants |

Related Items: | Jason Kao | Ryan Dodge | Richard Evans | Alex Rosolowsky | Eryn Cangi | Andrew W. Leonard | Feleg Tsegaye | Maria Khan | Pierce Schiller | Hang Zhang | Manuel Sosa | Jay Xiao | Tomasz Zarebczan | Zaphod Beeblebrox | Brian Gruening | Ross Solomon | Kyle Romero | Eshcole Peets | Ruth Maynie | Michael Schatte |

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