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The Yearlong Trek To At&T's Safari



On Apr. 11, 1990, Donald Genaro, a senior partner at Henry Dreyfus Associates, got a surprise phone call from one of the firm's biggest clients, American Telephone & Telegraph Co. "Clear the decks. We're going to proceed with the laptop project," said Edward Cote at AT&T's Data Systems Group. After four years of false starts, ill-fated foreign partnerships, and chasing ever-changing computer technology, AT&T was finally committing itself to the hot laptop market. It would build the Safari, a slim, 7-pound notebook computer powered by an Intel 80386 microchip.

Even then, AT&T realized that by the time its machine was ready, such notebook PCs would be commonplace. Toshiba, NEC, Compaq, and other laptop market leaders were working on 80386-based notebooks for fall 1990 introductions, and clonemakers from Taiwan to Texas would soon follow. IBM, a perennial loser in portable PCs, was hard at work on a 80386-based laptop, which finally hit the market this March.

'TERRIBLE SAMENESS.' So from the start, AT&T knew that the Safari would need something special to stand out in what was likely to be a commodity market. Indeed, instead of designing and building the guts of its laptop, AT&T had already turned the job over to Marubeni Corp., a huge Japanese trading company, which in turn had hired Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. to produce the PC. By the time Dreyfus got the call last April to design the laptop, AT&T's Cote had been named vice-president and general manager of Safari Systems, a joint venture between AT&T and Marubeni.

To make the Safari special, AT&T probed its target market--companies with big sales and service forces in need of portable computers and networking capability. "We had nondisclosure meetings with about 50 corporate customers," says William McFadden, director of marketing and sales at AT&T. "They wanted three things: a laptop that was easy to use, that had long battery life, and that looked good." Computer buyers complained that laptops then on the market had a "terrible sameness" to them. That gave Dreyfus an idea. "Our design goal was to make this thing look almost like very expensive luggage," says Genaro. "It was to be something you wore with pride, like a Rolex watch." Therefore, it was to be personal--sleek, with rounded edges and an expensive-looking gray matte finish.

Dreyfus then designed-in what people associate with "quality." First, the tactile qualities were given an upscale feel. A low, solid sound was built into the keyboard. "We didn't want it to sound toylike, like rattling Chiclets," says Genaro. The hinges were made to be tight and precise so the Safari lid would snap shut with the same sound as an expensive jewelry box. "Quality things don't creak or squeak or rattle," says Genaro.

AT&T wanted more--a powerful visual element to give the Safari a distinctive look. Dreyfus came up with the idea of a half-inch-wide ribbed bumper running around the edge of the machine. AT&T's customers had complained that some laptops actually cracked when they banged them around traveling. Dreyfus designed a soft rubber bumper that would strengthen the casing and absorb sudden jolts. As a bonus, "the bumper made the Safari appear even thinner," says Stephen Miggels, an associate designer at Dreyfus who was in charge of the day-to-day work on the Safari.

But there was a problem. Marubeni said it couldn't find any company willing to tool up for the relatively small production run of soft rubber bumpers that had the kind of detail demanded by Dreyfus. In the end, Dreyfus and AT&T had to settle for plastic bumpers.

Dreyfus had better luck getting Matsushita to meet AT&T's engineering needs. AT&T customers complained that the on/off switch on the outside of other laptops would sometimes flip on when the machines were dropped into briefcases, draining their batteries. The Matsushita laptop, on which the Safari was based, also had the power switch outside of the case. Miggels wanted it inside, right above the keyboard. He even gave the button a cheery blue color and a rounded, half-jelly-bean shape. The friendly design was perfect on paper.

Not so perfect in reality. When Miggels flew to Tokyo to meet with the Matsushita engineering team, they told him they weren't sure they could move components on the power supply board to accommodate his design. "We went back and forth on it," says Miggels. "In the end, they found a way."

Miggels designed for manufacturability as well as beauty. While making Safari pleasing to the eye, he also cut the number of parts used. In testing competing products, Miggels found that most laptops "swallowed" batteries through a trap-door in the case. Miggels came up with the idea of making the batteries part of the case. One side of each battery is finished with plastic that matches the back casing of the Safari. That cuts down on wasted space inside. "The idea was to package no air," says Miggels. His design also saved money on tooling, fasteners, and parts--and made the Safari a bit thinner, to 1.8 inches.

Perhaps the most interesting flash of genius in the Safari's design was a second small liquid-crystal display window on the keyboard. Unusual among 386 laptop PCs, the window gives feedback on what the computer is doing.

Matsushita first suggested the idea, but AT&T wasn't happy with its execution. Dreyfus made the concept work. Genaro and Miggels created a simple set of icons for the display window, such as an envelope to indicate when electronic mail is flowing through the built-in modem. Although Matsushita did not come up with any technical breakthroughs to extend battery life, AT&T says the Safari's LCD window will help customers eke out more cordless computing time. For example, a lightning-bolt icon signals if batteries are about to go completely dead. Two boxes labeled "A" and "B" for each battery show when either is losing power. And a "plug" icon indicates whether or not the machine is plugged into AC current.

Most unusual of all is the owl icon. When sending files to a printer or to another computer, the laptop can go into "sleep mode" to save power. When it does, the owl's eyes are closed. If the eyes are open, it is using full power. For an added fillip, Miggels designed the Safari so that the display window is visible even when the lid is closed and the machine is turned off. A quick glance shows if a battery needs replacing before a trip.

OVERCOMING FLATNESS. Miggels also was clever when it came to ergonomics. AT&T's customer survey revealed that people hated cramped keyboards. Their fingers were forever hitting the wrong keys. They also criticized keyboards that lay flat on a table, which they said made their hands tired. Luckily, Matsushita's machine came with a full-sized 9 1/2-by-12-inch keyboard, not the typical 8 1/2-by-11 one. Miggels overcame the flatness by designing the handle so that it flipped under the computer, tilting the keyboard.

The final design of the Safari was approved on Aug. 3, 1990, four months after Cote made the first phone call to Dreyfus. On Aug. 8, a working mock-up was delivered to AT&T. In November, at Comdex, the annual computer bazaar in Las Vegas, AT&T displayed the Safari preloaded with MS-DOS, Microsoft Windows, and Tour Guide, a program for first-time PC users. This final version goes on sale Apr. 10.

Can design, used as a strategic tool, turn a latecomer into a winner? The market is about to let AT&T know. But the company is taking no chances: It set the price of the fully loaded Safari at $5,400, right below IBM's $5,995 laptop, announced on Mar. 26.Bruce Nussbaum in New York

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