The key to gadget buyers' hearts: Simplicity

At Silicon Valley digital-home conference, panelists tell device developers how to charm consumers.

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."

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