Today in Tedium: Whether you think they’re neat or annoying, stickers indicating what’s inside your computer have been a key part of basically every pre-built machine this side of Apple. The last 30 years has seen tremendous shifts in the public image of a typical PC, but there is a high chance that your new ultrabook, just like the desktop your family once bought for Microsoft Excel and Quake, would come covered in vendor badges. Today’s Tedium goes into the origins of the long-running marketing scheme and some of its historical highlights. Stick with us if you want—we promise that’s the last sticker pun you’re going to read here. — Yuri @ Tedium
Intel Inside was initially a ploy to improve hiring in Japan
Computer stickers might advertise many things: sound cards, connection standards, extended warranty or a misguided fear of technological failure. But thanks to Intel, processors stand on their own when it comes to getting a badge. The Intel Inside campaign, introduced in the US in July 1991, is often cited as one of the prime cases of brand building. From the start, the program was conceived to make Intel a household name—but not for reasons you might expect.
The campaign, initially called “Intel In It,” was modeled by Intel’s Japanese arm to make the foreign company more desirable for local graduates to join, wrote [in Japanese] Nobuyuki Denda, a former Intel Japan executive vice president turned business consultant. The idea stemmed from the use of the Dolby logo on audio equipment which incorporated its noise reduction tech. Toshiba, building what’s often referred to as the world’s first modern-style laptop (which at its time meant the size of a binder), was the first company to use the Intel In It swoosh in 1989. 20 years later, Denda said in 2019 he persuaded Tetsuya Mizoguchi, Toshiba’s PC unit’s general manager, to join the program by offering processors at a discounted price and with a custom clock speed.
As Intel was bringing the campaign to the States, their Utah-based marketing shop, Dahlin Smith White, tweaked its slogan and its logo while the management formalized the incentive scheme. Basic rules of the program remained for years to come: a share of contract value paid by a PC manufacturer for Intel chips is transferred to the co-op marketing fund which the manufacturer used to subsidize the advertising—as long as the Intel Inside logo is featured.
Intel’s scheme, backed up by a TV advertising campaign, immediately got the attention of both computer manufacturers—some 350 of them joined the Intel Inside program in 1991, per Intel’s data—and the Federal Trade Commission. (Antitrust law enforcers worldwide were acting on Intel’s rebate programs throughout the 2000s, with some fines from that decade overturned as late as this January.) The Intel Inside branding, not referring to any specific chip initially, was expanded to also carry the Pentium name in 1994, essentially forming the now-familiar concept of a processor badge.
The company’s marketing efforts went further in 2003 after the introduction of Centrino, Intel’s first marketed integration of several hardware components—that line ended up having its own stickers, including one-off “combo” ones which allowed users to peel the processor name off. Intel is still focused on the concept of promoting hardware platforms with Intel Evo, but it also markets their graphics chips—with badges, too—in this way.
“Before you know it, PC ads, and then the products themselves, will become the computer equivalent of NASCAR race cars or Martina Navratilova’s tennis shirt.”
— Aaron Goldberg, InfoCorp’s CEO, in a 1992 column for Marketing Computers. Noting the trend of computer companies highlighting their choice of components, he correctly predicted that video card and storage manufacturers might follow the Intel model. (Samsung SSDs come with stickers nowadays.) He also warned computer manufacturers publicly choosing “top-drawer components” that they might be undercut by by companies offering the same thing for less, which is exactly what would be happening during the 1990s bloodbath of cheap PC compatibles.
Microsoft tried to boost its branding game via stickers, too—but it didn’t always work
While Intel wanted to give extra visibility to their components inside a PC, Microsoft aimed to do the same with Windows, an optional piece of software at that point. In 1991, Microsoft introduced an iconic Windows flag—not to put it on a Start menu (there wasn’t one yet), but to use it as a mark of compatibility.
In January 1992, Dell, Tandy and DEC agreed to display a Windows logo on “packaging, advertisements and, in some cases, their machines,” the Wall Street Journal reported. These badges didn’t necessarily mean “Windows inside,” though, as Microsoft introduced a two-tier system for its stickers. PCs that came with Windows preinstalled got the “Microsoft Windows Ready-to-Run” sticker, whereas those which only matched Windows hardware requirements were marked as “compatible.”
The latter sticker showed what the computer could have as opposed to what it already has, effectively trying to upsell even prospective owners of that PC. Later, as Windows became standard, Microsoft used similar badges to move PCs with the then-current system version, while promoting the upcoming one. The most infamous one, “Windows Vista Capable,” ended up as a PR crisis and led a lawsuit which unsealed plenty of internal emails before it was stripped off its class-action status in 2009.
As Microsoft balanced between interests of Intel, PC builders, and their own, they relaxed requirements for the “capable” label to include Intel’s dominant chipset which did not support Vista’s new driver model. Dissatisfied buyers argued that the designation made them spend money on machines which could only run the most basic version of Vista with none of the system’s visual enhancements.
Starting with Windows 8, Microsoft changed the role of stickers, turning them from a marketing element into an anti-piracy measure. By that point in history, the software company had long achieved the goal outlined by Jonathan Lazarus, Microsoft’s general manager of systems marketing, back in 1992: to “eliminate” the concept of IBM PC compatibles and make customers “focus on Windows.”
AMD tried to make a separate sticker for gaming PCs, while wooing buyers with Wi-Fi chip brands
Unless we are talking about entire spec sheets glued on a PC, computer stickers are limited in their ability to convey useful information.
A consumer might deduce, via a thumbnail-sized badge, which processor a given PC has, but it’s tricky to translate this information to real-life performance on the fly. This was always particularly true for graphics chips. In the early 2000s, for example, a sticker for the graphics card maker ATI could be found on a top-of-the-line gaming PC, but also on a Nintendo console and a video output add-on for a Toshiba PDA—hardly the same devices performance-wise.
In 2008, AMD (which had acquired ATI by this point) created a badge designed to convey that a PC which carries it—built around AMD components, of course—is suitable for gaming. Machines bearing “AMD Game!” labels were billed as being able to run World of Warcraft at 60 frames per second at 1280×1024 resolution, among other things, with an “AMD Game! Ultra” designation promising a comfortable bump in resolution.
Visually, AMD Game! stickers followed the style of the company’s earlier initiative of bringing PC component stickers in a literal chevron-like order. Incidentally, the “Better By Design” campaign considered a wireless module brand to be worthy of mention next to CPU and GPU brands. Such exposure for Broadcom or Atheros—both reputable manufacturers, yet hardly household names—might have happened because the AMD affair was touted as an answer to Intel’s Centrino platform, which the Intel-made wireless card was an integral part of.
Destructoid criticized AMD Game! stickers for their static, vendor-specific nature, noting they add to “an already inconsistent industry vernacular for PC hardware.” There wasn’t any similar campaign by NVIDIA, and Microsoft’s “experience index,” designed to make PC gaming simpler, failed to escape the few places in Windows that it was confined to.
“We put ourselves in our customers’ shoes. What do we want stuck on our products when we take them out of the box? The answer is: nothing.”
— Steve Jobs, Apple’s late CEO, explaining in 2007 why Apple, which had completed its transition to Intel processors a year before, does not use Intel Inside stickers. During the same media event, Phil Schiller, Apple’s head of marketing at the time, named both packaging icons and computer stickers as parts of the same “full philosophy” which made other computer manufacturers pre-install “junkware all over your desktop.” That being said, Intel logos did appear on some Apple packaging, sometimes with the same Intel Inside design used on ordinary PCs of their time.
Whether users want to see stickers on their PCs is a question which, at the very least, doesn’t have a universal answer. David Pogue, tech journalist, said in his 2010 Times column that even AMD’s own research “shows that consumers hate the stickers.” (The company suggested in the piece that they might eventually halt the sticker program; as of 2022, that hasn’t happened.)
But many enthusiasts do like them, even asking Intel for missing ones (and getting them in mail after filling a form). For Linux advocates, branding their machine with a logo of their preferred OS flavor might be a way to stick it to Microsoft. In the retrocomputing community, the desire to assemble authentic-looking PCs created a demand for era-appropriate sticker replicas—the demand which some shops are eager to address. And, just like with any ephemera, some people find them fun to collect.
People might like PC badges for many reasons, whether it’s a passion for a particular brand or the perception of stickers as a mark of a new purchase. In any case, they are seen as an integral part of PC culture. And, if this newsletter is an indicator, even minute parts of any culture can be appreciated.
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