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You go, girl gadgeteer

Women, a growing force in consumer electronics, have a message for gadget makers--and it's not all about pink. Photos: Gadgets for gals

Stop Gina Hughes in the street on any given day and you'll find the following in her bag: a Treo, a Bluetooth headset, a digital camera, an iPod--and, quite possibly, a few more gadgets for good measure.

Swing by her house and you'll see a couple of TiVos and flat-panel televisions, a MacBook Pro, a camcorder, a PlayStation Portable and a Nintendo DS Lite. Don't even get started on her car--the dashboard has more buttons than the helm of the starship Enterprise.

Gadgets "make you feel safe and confident," said the 32-year-old gearhead, who runs the blog Techie Diva from her Silicon Valley home. "And of course, they make you look cool."

Hughes, who also writes a tech column for Yahoo, could be the poster child for today's girl gadgeteers. Passionate and knowledgeable about her gear, and a careful consumer known to spend weeks researching a product before plunking down her cash, she's part of a growing legion of women who, more than ever before, are getting gung ho about gadgets. And figures show they're becoming major players in the consumer-electronics market.

Out of $107.2 billion spent on consumer-electronics technology in 2005, men accounted for 54 percent, or $57.9 billion worth, of those purchases, and women took care of 46 percent, or $49.3 billion, according to market research firm The NPD Group. That's an 18 percent increase in spending by females compared with the previous year, when women rang up $41.9 billion in gadget purchases. Men spent about the same amount in 2004 as they did in 2005.

"It's increasingly not just about having a gadget, but having a functional product that enhances the life of the family," said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for The NPD Group. "The idea that people go online to go shopping--that makes the computer (purchase) something of a household decision. It's not just guys in charge of the gadgets."

Gadgets for girls

Whether the wallet is being wielded by a stay-at-home mom, a working woman or any of the other countless variations on the 21st century female, gadget makers are taking note. Major companies including Apple Computer, Motorola, Eastman Kodak, Sony and Nintendo are giving products like cell phones, USB flash drives and handheld game devices bursts of color and graceful lines, and featuring women prominently in ads. Some designers, meanwhile, are developing products with an exclusively female audience in mind.

"Most of the women I know play a lot of different roles in their lives, and they're all very important to them," said designer Steffi Card. "They don't use (a gadget) just for business. They need it for their personal lives, their friendships, their family, all of these things."

Card conceived of , a new line of stylish headbands that double as headphones, with an optional matching cell phone headset, after concluding that typical headphones, in her mind at least, are uncomfortable and none too attractive.

"I didn't like how inflexible they were," said the New York designer, who co-owns Steffi Thomas NYC with her husband. "I didn't like that the speaker of the headset always had to be in my ear all the time--I felt like I was living my life...with only one ear." Plus, she added, "I decided I didn't like the way they looked."

Her alternative works like a traditional headband, worn behind the ears to push back hair. Swapsets are available in wool, cotton and silk, in designs from polka dots to stripes to Indian-inspired paisleys. Earringlike dangles hanging from the bottom of the headband are an optional accessory, for added flair.

"The idea with a headset is that you're wearing it on your face, your head. It's very personal," Card said. "Why wouldn't it be attractive and interesting? Once you're wearing it, it might as well be fun."

The Swapsets site even has a tool for mixing and matching fabrics so consumers can come up with just the right look to match their getup. But as passionate as Card is about fashion and design, she's also adamant that gadgets aimed at women have to incorporate more than a sense of style.

"It has to be cute and attractive," she said. "That's important, but not the only thing that matters. It's quality, comfort and utility."

If there's a theme, it seems women are attracted to portable gadgets like cell phones, digital cameras and notebook computers, which, according to NPD's Baker, "tend to do better with women than big, desktop, stationary kinds of products."

A study released in June found that . Then, of course, there are iPods, which enjoy a particularly loyal following among women, Hughes observed.

Gina Hughes
Credit: Gina Hughes
Gina Hughes, aka "Techie Diva."

"Women don't want anything but an iPod," she said. "Most of them won't go outside the iPod circle for an MP3 player."

Part of the appeal has to do with the abundance of iPod accessories, Hughes says. Another factor? Advertising. "The way that Apple advertises...they advertise hip. It doesn't seem like a nerdy thing. It's hip. It's fashion."

Though iPods are popular with women--anecdotally, the iPod Mini, when it came out, appealed to women more than the original player--men are still more likely to have one of the players, at least according to a 2005 study by Pew Internet & American Life. That survey found that 13 percent of men had an iPod or other MP3 player, compared with 9 percent of women.

But women aren't just buying phones and digital accessories for themselves, they're getting them as gifts. Consumer-electronics sales increased 9 percent the week before Mother's Day this year from the same week in 2005, according to The NPD Group, which found that purchases rose just 3 percent the week before Father's Day this year.

The numbers indicate that not only are moms becoming more technologically savvy, but dads and kids are more willing to invest in technology for the women in their lives, according to Baker. Even gifts traditionally associated with men, like mobile navigation devices and satellite radios, sold well leading up to Mother's Day this year.

"My best advice would be to not condescend to women, to really think about what it is women do on a daily basis."
--Designer Steffi Card

Such data would undoubtedly delight Alison Lewis. A latecomer to the tech world, Lewis is now doing her part to spread the tech-chick gospel, through Switch, an online do-it-yourself show for women. The site hosts how-to videos that teach fellow females to create practical, aesthetic and unabashedly girly gadgets, such as a purse light or a talking picture frame.

"People have magazines, but there's nothing out there geared toward women that gets them excited about electronics," said Lewis, a 30-something designer who by day teaches classes on fashion and technology at Parsons Institute of Design in New York City. "There's nothing in the middle between hard-core do-it-yourself technology books and sites, and craft Web sites or books. Everything (out there) is how to do stuff with crazy electronics that women don't like."

So what, exactly, do women like?

Asked to name her own favorite gadgets, Lewis paused before confessing that she's generally dissatisfied with what's currently on offer from consumer-electronics companies.

"Everything is hard and cold still," she said. "They're not appealing to females."

For instance, she added, "Why does a phone have to be so hard? Why can't it wrap around my wrist? It can, but no one's done it yet."

Some of her favorite devices involve the use of advanced textiles to create soft, touchable interfaces. Lewis says she likes Eleksen Smart Fabric Touchpads for bags and backpacks that let consumers insert an iPod and control it remotely from one of the straps. Hughes, for her part, favors gadgets with multiple functions. "A phone that can do music, video, digital photos...that's ideal, because you don't have to carry all the gadgets in your purse. You only carry one."

Which leads to Card's gadget wish: better toting options. "There's still work we can do on...incorporating into purses and bags good ways to use and store our cell phones and our headphones and our headsets," she said.

Female gadget fans, of course, are hardly a monolithic group, and they have mixed reactions when it comes to the girliest of girl gadgets--devices like the pink Motorola Razr, pink Nintendo DS Lite and the veritable litter of Hello Kitty-branded cell phones, laptops and USB hubs.

"It's amazing how many girls like girly things: People love pink, they love Hello Kitty," said Terry Stone, a graduate student in broadcast design at New York University, who started the blog Chip Chick. (Indeed, in the first two days after it was released, the pink Razr outsold a month's worth of other popular wireless phones on the Cingular Web site, according to Untangled Life.)

Still, lest gadget makers think that all it takes to float women buyers is a cloud of cotton candy-inspired consumer electronics, they'd best think again.

"Women are looking for style and substance and class that doesn't look masculine, but they're not necessarily looking for the pink and the flowery," Stone said. "There's a big demand for something cute and fashionable and hip that isn't part of the female stereotype."

That applies to advertising as well.

Lewis points to advertising by Iqua, a consumer-electronics manufacturer out of Finland, as an example of female-oriented marketing that doesn't condescend. The company made its U.S. debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, showing off Bluetooth headsets sporting sleek designs and bright, funky patterns.

"Iqua is focusing right toward women, their Web site (shows) a woman in a car on a hands-free phone. All pictures are with women; all the designs are for women," she said.

Lewis seems less impressed with the way gadgets are marketed to teens and young women. She said ads featuring a girl wearing a trendy shade of lipstick with an iPod in her pocket show that consumer-electronics companies are trying to market MP3 players as another accessory, just like a cute purse or belt.

"They're trying to get it into the fashion world, but the fashion world and the tech world don't really have a conversation right now....If you're going to do that, you have to change it up," Lewis said. Gadget makers "are trying to appeal to females through fashion, but I haven't seen anything really revolutionary. (In one ad) the girl's wearing a cool outfit, and she has a cell phone in her pocket. OK, that's not going to sell me the cell phone."

More likely to do the trick, according to Card of Swapsets, is an approach that takes into careful account women's desire for style balanced with functionality.

"My best advice would be to not condescend to women, to really think about what it is women do on a daily basis," she said. "Women are tough consumers. We shop around, we know what we want, and we're not really likely to fall for something that hasn't been thought through."

CNET News.com's Ina Fried contributed to this report.