The key to gadget buyers’ hearts: Simplicity

The key to gadget buyers’ hearts: Simplicity

By Erica Ogg
Story last modified Thu Oct 12 18:17:36 PDT 2006

SAN JOSE, Calif.–Can Grandma figure out how to use it?

That, according to panelists at S2Data’s Digital Home Developers Conference 2006 here on Thursday, should be the litmus test for ease of use as technology advances.

The panelists–a venture capitalist, a gadget blogger, a media strategist and the vice president of a content streaming service–attempted to stick up for consumers ("end users" as they like to say) at a forum titled "Three Key Questions Shaping the Digital Home" and filled with engineers, semiconductor company execs, hardware makers and networking professionals.

"If the content is simple, and one click works, people will consume more media."

–Herve Utheza, Orb Networks

If
the answer to the grandma question is "no," the speakers said, consumer
electronics and IT companies have a lot more work ahead of them. (They
already do, those who’ve recently purchased a high-definition television or tried to download iTunes songs onto a portable media player that’s not an iPod might say.)

Fortunately, the panelists agreed, we’re in the beginning stages of the
evolution of the connected home. Herve Utheza, vice president of TV
properties for Orb Networks , used a soccer analogy: "We’re still in the first 15 mintues of the first half of the game."

An estimated 4 million "connected homes" are already set up in this
country–those with Wi-Fi networks with connected devices like a PC,
TV, set-top box, personal video recorder, and so on–and that number is
expected to grow exponentially in the next five years. It won’t,
though, if consumers are forced to study up on an alphabet soup’s worth
of acronyms to consume the content they want, Utheza said.

"It
will not work if Grandma has to figure out what DNS, DLNA and IP
(are)," Utheza said. The key is to hide those technical details from
consumers, so they need only press play to get the TV shows, movies,
music and photos they’ve purchased, ripped, stored or, let’s face it,
stolen.

The simpler consumer devices become, the more they’ll
fly off the shelves and create a place for even more innovative
technology, the panelists agreed. "I think once you get past ease of
use, that fosters the ability to deploy more advanced technology," said
Ryan Block, managing editor of Engadget .
"You have to be able to use something before putting it in your home. I
think a lot of users are scared of hi-def because it’s this ghostly,
nebulous thing."

In the same way, people who spend $9.99 on a
new album from Apple Computer’s iTunes Store want to be able to listen
to the album whenever and wherever they want, and most importantly,
only want to pay for it once, said Block.

Fortunately for
Apple, the iPod maker is also the market leader in digital audio
players, so it can afford to set the rules via its FairPlay digital
rights management (DRM) encryption. Songs purchased from iTunes have
DRM attached so they can only be played on an iPod or ripped to a CD.

Apple’s
success with that model has given other consumer electronics makers the
idea that they can or should do the same, according to Block.

"A
lot of CE companies think they can own that entire ecosystem the way
Apple does. That causes (more) products (to be made) that eschew open
standards and make it more difficult for the consumer to actually
consume," he said.

Seth Shapiro, a new-media strategy
consultant to entertainment studios, concurred: "Nobody wants DRM.
Nobody wants to be told to buy this song, but you can’t put it" where
you want it.

Companies like Apple and Microsoft don’t
advertise the limitations of their respective DRMs, FairPlay and
PlaysForSure, presumably because they’re complicated. But the inverse
can also be problematic, said Shapiro. Simple products even Grandma
could use can suffer from poor advertising campaigns.

For
instance, he said, "TiVo had a nice, easy-to-use interface, but the
initial brand message didn’t portray that ease of use. I think it’s
important, as new technologies come out, that messaging" is clear.

Content
creators like movie and television studios and record companies
shouldn’t worry about their lack of control over content via
placeshifting devices like TiVo, said Alexander Marquez, director of
strategic investment at Intel Capital, because personal video recorders
actually cause people to spend more time in front of the TV.

"If the content is simple, and one click works," Utheza said, "people will consume more media."

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