Go for That Smart ‘Dress to Process’ Look

As a feat of American engineering prowess, Motorola’s new 7.7-oz. MicroTAC telephone--the smallest cellular phone ever--is worth calling home about. Alas, as a symbol of hand-held haute media couture , it’s a disconnect.

Although engineers may take great pride in their abilities to miniaturize, portabilize and personalize electronic media, simply shrinking circuitry is a lazy, style-empty approach to creating innovation. Motorola’s engineers may be brilliant, but its designers aren’t.

Beyond a certain point, personal media such as telephones, computers and planners aren’t just functional objects anymore--they’re fashionable accessories. You don’t just use them--you wear them as part of your daily media wardrobe. Our media should fit us as comfortably and stylishly as a bespoke suit or a favorite tie.

Have you ever tried to talk into one of these hand-helds? Folks who use these palm-sized cellular phones generally look like twits talking up their sleeves. The traditional notion of a “phone” as something you hold in your hand and speak into becomes silly.


How much more elegant for the executive woman on the move to have a tiara-style headset that frees the hands for note taking or a cup of coffee? Men wear “power” ties; which style and color are tomorrow’s “power headsets?” If Sony were designing cellular phone fashions, you could be sure the phones could be worn a la The Walkman, not just something you carried around in your pocket. The challenge here isn’t just clever engineering; it’s captivating design. It’s figuring out what the best design metaphor should be.

Computers by Cardin? Interfaces by Armani? Ralph Lauren’s Casual Multimedia Look for Men? Why not? Clothes blend functionality with fashion. So do those state-of-the-art digital watches. We should be able to wear our computers and television sets as comfortably and casually as we wear our watches.

Maybe high-bandwidth antennae will be woven into our jackets and touch-sensitive panels could be stitched into our sleeves as we choose to make our media fit us instead of the other way around. The goal is not to re-create Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone--it’s to offer a media wardrobe that’s tailored to our media style. People already pay a premium for Waterman and Mark Cross pens--ink-based media that offer far more fashion than functionality. So why wouldn’t they pay a premium for a wardrobe that delivered far more bang for the buck?

Look at the athletic shoe business. The Nikes and Reeboks have succeeded precisely because they’ve figured out how to meld the lust of fashion with the need for performance. Their shoes are loaded with “innovative technologies” like pumps and gels. These companies don’t make shoes; they create lifestyle technologies. Why shouldn’t a telephone or a computer be designed with that idea in mind? Maybe Motorola and Sony have a lot more in common with Nike and the high-tech shoe companies than they now realize.

Today, nobody thinks twice when they see an executive in a $3,000 suit wearing a Sony Walkman or screaming into his BMW’s car phone. Perhaps it will seem just as natural for someone to sketch a digital diagram on his or her IBM/Apple software sleeve to have it uploaded into an office file by cellular modem. Perhaps power RayBans will be equipped with the projection device made by Reflection Technologies that gives the eye the illusion that a computer screen is hovering but a foot away. Maybe Nintendo will offer a jacket-with-a-joystick that lets you play games with yourself if you slip a cartridge in your sleeve. Migosh, if we can have Coca-Cola clothes, why not have a line of digitized Matsushita mensware that lets you resonate with the frequency spectrum or catch “Casablanca” as you’re standing in line?

The reality is that people already have personal media woven into the fabric of their lives. How much of a leap is it to weave that technology into the fabric of their clothes?

Indeed, why shouldn’t the well-tailored media wardrobe--permitting easy computational management of integrated sound, text and imagery--become just as common as today’s double-breasted suit? The folks of the future who don’t wear a phone or a computer in public may seem as vulgar or poorly dressed as people who don’t wear ties or whose favorite textile is polyester. Instead of “All dressed up and no place to go,” tomorrow’s lament will be “All dressed up and no data to process.”

It’s far too early to anticipate the differences between haute media couture and the off-the-rack ready-to-wear media wardrobes that will be selling at Kmart. On the other hand, it’s not at all early for the Motorolas and Sonys to start chatting with the Givenchys and Ralph Laurens.

Sure, people are interested in tools and functionality. But our media are as much a reflection of our desired lifestyles as anything else. Relentlessly smaller phones miss the point. So do smaller computers and electronic planners.

Is a Motorola in the “portable telephone” business? Or is it really in the business of creating new fashions for personal communications? Will the Motorolas, Sonys and Matsushitas make devices we use to communicate and calculate? Or will they also design the media wardrobes we wear? My bet is that the media wardrobe companies will be those that make a real killing in the business of pop culture.