October 12, 2006 5:12 PM PDT

The key to gadget buyers' hearts: Simplicity

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, the panelists said, 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."

See more CNET content tagged:
ORB Networks Inc., Digital Home, digital-rights management, consumer electronics, ease of use


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This is exactly why Apple will prevail in the coming years. iPods
are the most simple to use media players, as well as the Mac
platform. Leopard will push this simplicity even farther. Most of
Leopards new features seem to improve on simplicity, such as Time
Machine and Core Imaging (for developers).
Posted by mhersh (78 comments )
Reply Link Flag
is it?
It's only simple if you buy completely into the Apple ecosystem. I agree, Apple has some nice products. I just don't like the idea of being locked into one manufacturer for the rest of my life.
Posted by Hardrada (359 comments )
Link Flag
All four labels dropped the ball for years - Apple just picked it up
And if Sony Music and Sony CE had worked together, Apple would have been crushed out of the gate.

Don't hate the player hate the game baby.
Posted by SethShapiro (2 comments )
Link Flag
Slip on the Apple Straight Jacket
What a load of crap. Apple is just plain evil. They are no f'ing better than Microsoft, or Generic Greedy Company X, perhaps even worse.

Imagine if your Ford Mustang wouldn't run unless you bought FordGas. Or you stop off at the FordGas station, fill up only to discover that the gas that you just bought will not work in your Toyota.
Posted by DecliningUSDollar (56 comments )
Reply Link Flag
simplicity in gadgets
Maybe designers of electronic gadgets and software should heed the words of Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame):

"Easy, plain and familiar language, is the beauty of speech in general, and is the excellency of all writing, on whatever subject, or to whatever persons they are that we write to or speak. The end of speech is, that men may understand one another's meaning; certainly then, that speech, or that way of speaking, which is most easily understood is the best. If any man were to ask me, what I would suppose to be a perfect style of language, I would answer, that in which a man speaking to five hundred people, all of common and various capacities, should be understood by them all, in the same sense which the speaker intended to be understood."

Alan J Zell
Posted by azell (20 comments )
Reply Link Flag
This is what I have been trying to tell you!!
This is where most companies lose customers. Take cell providers... not everyone wants a camera, ringtones, web browser, IM, mp3 player, organizer, contact list, calendar, alarm clock, business card transfer, and the million other features. Just give me a phone that does what I need.

And to make it worse, some "simplicity" focued products go by the wayside because most people don't appreciate them. For example, the IXI Mobile Ogo device. Marketed for kids, no voice, but IM and E-mail everywhere... for a flat rate, no matter how much you use it.. And its big secret? It also works as a bluetooth modem for your laptop or PDA.. But in the end, a strictly-communication device rather than your do-it-all-including-your-girlfriend type device. This is why I may not have the most blinged out devices, but they work, and work well for what they are designed for, not work with a level of mediocrity at everything.
Posted by FusedAndCondazed (26 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It takes a Panel to tell you that???
Unbelievable!!! Ipod, people. You think it rules the MP3 market on good looks alone? And if you need that huge example to point this out, God Help your business
Posted by chrisw63 (26 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Briding the gap to more market share
Couldnt agree more with the need for a "simple is as simple does" OS. Think about how many people dont have a comp, why? Its not solely because of cost, its because the old age question comes into play; Can you really teach an old dog new tricks? Well, yes you can. Its all in the approach and the ability to true be ease of use to system with.

The key to this bridge lays in the hands of the instruction manual. Instruction Manual you may say? Who wants to read a 300 page book on just how to work there DVD player? Exactly, they dont, so approach the development of the OS as if no one is going to read the manual or call up tech support just so they can be introduced to worlds growing technology. RMC/26/Las Vegas, N
Posted by robwoods20 (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag

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