Burr walnut computing

Originally published 2005 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Where, I ask you, are the boutique luxury computers?

William Gibson had the right idea in "Idoru", with his hardware housed by "The Sandbenders" in casings made from coral and turquoise and nut-wood. The stuff inside might be your standard Ono-Sendai cyberdeck, but the exterior should be a joy to behold and to handle. Paint doesn't quite cut it (though it can be pretty).

I don't know about you, but I spend a large fraction of every day beholding and handling computers, and I could certainly cope with a little coral. Beige plastic and powder-coated steel are cheap and durable, but there's a reason why Rolex don't make any watches out of these materials.

You can get this sort of thing in the car world, you know. Sure, most people settle for normal mainstream reviewed-in-the-newspaper vehicles, for very good reasons, but even then you're not stuck with childproof upholstery and squeaky plastic. You can get walnut and leather if you pay for it. And in the automotive business, there are of course more exotic options.

Spyker in the Netherlands make cars whose interiors look like bordellos for billionaires. Various manufacturers have come up with minimalist open-wheeled road projectiles driven by superbike engines - occasionally two of 'em, sharing a crank. There are jet motorcycles and stretched Humvees and companies that recondition old all-terrain troop transports that can't be killed with a stick. You name it, you can get it, whether you want a road rocket with an upholstered roof or the automotive equivalent of an AK-47.

Sony's "ceramic" PSP, which is actually made from what us materials science professionals call "white plastic", is not exactly what I'm looking for, here.

(Colour me picky, but I would also like the products, in addition to the bank account of the person allegedly selling them, to actually exist.)

What all of the weird cars have in common is that they're made for a small market. Annual production of the real oddities may not get into double figures - while Toyota makes more than a million Corollas a year.

But in the computer world, everything's mass produced. Everything. Even companies like Alienware that sell spiffy-looking high-spec machines don't fabricate anything themselves; every part is OEMed by someone else, and if there's some particular case design they use that nobody else has, you can bet that it still won't be made out of mahogany.

If money is no object, of course, you can have that keyboard with the genuine narwhal ivory keys of which you've always dreamed. Just as there are customisers that can make you any kind of car you want pretty much from scratch, there's nothing stopping you rounding up some artisans to make computer components the same way.

Except, of course, for the fact that hiring cabinetmakers for a one-off means you'd end up with a computer that cost at least as much as the abovementioned popular Toyota (and even then the result may not be quite so nice up close).

A few fancy-computer companies are trying to find a middle way, almost invariably with wooden PC bits. Some of the stuff they sell looks pretty lame to me - wooden siding on a steel computer case is not what I'm after, here, and techno-widgets iced out with Swarovski crystals are loved by Paris Hilton, which ought to be all you need to know about them. But wood-cased monitors and keyboards and mice are a step in the right direction (wooden mousemats that look like toilet seats, not so much). And the prices can be right - see Swedx, for instance. Or Wood Contour, for the other end of the price spectrum.

The problem, of course, is that computer gear ages fast. A gloriously retro micarta-Bakelite-and-celluloid laptop will be a lot more retro, in a bad way, in a few years - and you won't be able to retrofit it with new hardware.

Some devices, though, are likely to endure. Input devices, in particular. Plenty of heavy typists hammer away on buckling spring keyboards that haven't changed in 20 years (and yes, some of those 'boards are that old and still working), and the all-surface optical mouse seems to have reached the same evolutionary level, now. Build your pinstripe lacquer mouse or keyboard to last and it ought to stay useful until our computers start talking back to us in Majel Barrett's voice.

When you've got a product lifespan like that, there ought to be a market for a ten-times-as-expensive version with burr walnut and engine turned stainless and glove leather and cocobolo-wood buttons. And, of course, quality switchgear that feels good and lasts, which is something that seems to have evaded the wooden-keyboard crowd so far.

The market for such products would, of course, largely be composed of executive oxygen thieves who're attempting to convince themselves that they're men of distinction. But if the status symbol crowd drive sales of things that I want to own for non-poseur reasons, that's fine with me.

Don't get me wrong; I like a great military-industrial case mod as much as the next geek, and typing on plastic isn't exactly killing me. But if people'll spend thousands of dollars to put shiny spinning things on the outside of their wheels, I find it hard to believe that a keyboard that looks like a Bentley dashboard wouldn't find a market.

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