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Switched On: Consumer electronics companies need to step up their software


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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

If you're looking at something in Las Vegas that is shiny and aglow, either you're standing next to one of the Parliament-puffing sexagenarians forging a deep personal bond with a slot machine or you're at the International Consumer Electronics Show. Particularly since the demise of Comdex that it helped to accelerate, CES has been positioned as the launchpad for all consumer technology in North America. While the mammoth convention includes a healthy representation of PC-related keynote speakers, such as Bill Gates, Carly Fiorina, and Craig Barrett, it remains to be seen whether the show will truly come into its own as the focal point for the consumer PC industry. Indeed, most of the agenda-setting for the future of the PC occurs at Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference and the Intel Developer Forum.

CES, though, is definitely the place for televisions. You�ll find everything from the 5� monochrome sets well suited to reliving the Sputnik panic to breathtaking wide-body plasmas that can effectively heat many small towns. CES is also the leading venue for other audio and video products such as DVD players and recorders and digital video recorders.

With few exceptions, though, the care that has gone into the fit and finish of the hardware isn�t reflected in the software. Interface critics may attack on-screen interfaces from companies such as TiVo, ReplayTV, Microsoft or Media Center workalikes such as Snapstream�s Beyond Media or Meedio�s TV Essentials. However, they are straightforward and elegant when compared with the confusing menus and inscrutable icons that dominate most non-TiVo DVRs, and most DVD recorders.

So, here�s a modest proposal for a new year�s resolution for the likes of Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, JVC, Thomson, Philips, Samsung, and LG. Take a few million dollars out of the budget reserved for establishing plasma size bragging rights or DVD format wars and hire a few programmers that know how to create an interface. Then put it in as many products as possible. You don�t need to try a paradigm shift like the original Macintosh operating system, PenPoint, or Magic Cap, but an occasional visual cue, proportional font, or on-screen explanation of a feature would really help consumers.

Indeed, it defies reason that consumer electronics companies invest millions in creating unifying industrial designs, proprietary protocols, and the flash memory card format du jour, while practically ignoring the lessons pioneered by Apple and perfected by Microsoft. By making the user interface attractive and consistent, companies would create higher barriers to entry to competitors. Even if every company took its signature interface in a somewhat different direction, consumers would still be better off since today we are stuck with divergent designs that look like the user interfaces companies tried to graft onto DOS.

Consumer electronics companies have �gotten away� with letting on-screen user interfaces lag because products had simple, standalone functionality. Optimizing functionality for a particular task, such as playing a DVD or recording a TV show, may still be an advantage of standalone devices, but the sheer amount of content both on a device and accessible through a home network will soon bring these archaic interfaces to their knees.

One of the reasons consumer electronics companies have been left scratching their heads in response to the iPod has been that they�ve been unable to offer elegant user interfaces for even functionally simple products. Preparing now for a world in which consistent usable interfaces effectively control not only a company�s devices but are aware of other products that the company may have will be a critical defense tactic as PC manufacturers attack more emerging consumer electronics convergence categories.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at

In this article: CES, switched on, SwitchedOn
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