Image: Apple iPad
Kimberly White  /  Reuters
Apple's iPad is among the new products announced for this year that have met with mixed reactions from consumers, although the true test will be when it goes on sale in March. "Consumers are getting savvier about what's worth buying or enthusing about right off the bat," says Paul Reynolds, electronics editor for Consumer Reports.
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msnbc.com
updated 2/12/2010 8:59:51 AM ET 2010-02-12T13:59:51

Apple's iPad has generated a “meh” reaction by and large, although we’ll know for sure once it goes on sale in March. Google’s Buzz, in less than 24 hours, generated a lot of negative buzz, including some resistance to yet another social networking tool. 3-D TV is on the push list this year, but consumer interest is mixed at best.

Is "tech fatigue" setting in? As in, "If they announce one more change to Facebook..." "Why are they coming out with another new kind of TV when I just bought an HDTV last year?" and "I already have a (fill in the blank: netbook, laptop, smartphone) and don't need an iPad." Or are tighter wallets to blame for lack of excitement about new products?

Those wallets have been strained mightily the past year or so. Still, sales of consumer technology for the last quarter of 2009 were a "huge improvement" over the the fourth quarter of 2008, according to a recent report from the NPD Group.

While overall consumer technology revenue in 2009 was down by almost 5 percent from the year before, "that should not be taken as a sign that consumers were not buying" the market research company said. The personal tech industry sold more than 1 billion "devices, gadgets, and accessory products." 

'Consumers are getting savvier'
"I don’t believe for a second that we’re 'meh' on new technology," says James McQuivey, Forrester Research principal analyst. "Instead, we’re very sophisticated in what is going to get our attention. A fancy new device that doesn’t improve on the devices we already have, or a promised service that we can’t go out and buy yet, won’t be able to get our attention.

"We're putting our energy in areas where there’s a real benefit to us: Flip cameras and their imitators, social media experiences on Facebook, and Hulu.com. In other words, people don’t put a lot of stock in promises anymore because they’ve heard too many of them. Instead, they want the tech industry to show them the benefits."

Paul Reynolds, electronics editor for Consumer Reports, thinks "if reaction to some new developments seems muted, the economy could be a factor; if you don't think you can afford something, it can be easier to convince yourself it isn't going to change your life."

But he also believes that "consumers are getting savvier about what's worth buying or enthusing about right off the bat. I'd venture that tablets and 3-D are things people will be interested in buying — and in paying closer attention to — once prices drop and the inevitable bugs are worked out — like needing pricey glasses to see in 3-D, for example. Experience has told people that more than ever in recent years, as they've seen the likes of HDTV mature."

Indeed, it's one thing to don a pair of 3-D glasses at the movies to see "Avatar," but another to have to do so at home on a regular, or even semi-regular basis — and to pay for it through the nose by having to buy a new set and additional equipment for such special effects. Early adopters will race to do it; most of the rest of us — not so much.

Time and timing
Consumers vote with their wallets, but they also vote with their schedules, as in: "I don't have time for this," when free, Web-based programs like Facebook, Twitter and many of Google's products (including Gmail and Buzz) add change to the mix.

Of course, change — new products and "disruption" (in a positive sense) — is part and parcel of personal technology, and trying to slow it down would be anathema. But it may be that we have reached a tech bump in the road, augmented by news-at-the-speed-of Internet, which leads to immediate inflation and deflation of new products even before, or just as, they're released.

Among those products, the iPad, Google Buzz, 3-D TV. "For the most part, you've had people reach conclusions before they've seen or used the products themselves, and a good deal of that comes from enthusiasts, not mainstream consumers," says Michael Gartenberg, longtime technology observer and vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret, LLC.

"The real test will be as each of these are released, marketed and explained to consumers and then how they react to the products."

Interest in new devices
Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist for In-Stat, agrees. "Most analysts and press were down on the (Amazon) Kindle and look where the e-reader is now," he says. "I had that thing for 15 minutes and fell in love with it, just as most users did.

"While we are in a bit of tech overload, consumers are still interested in new devices and enhancements," he says. "However, strains on disposable income, driven by the economic and the increasing monthly costs of content and services, are weighing on consumers."

And some of the new offerings are simply not must-have products. The iPad, McGregor says, "lacks many features to allow users to use the device as a full multimedia tablet and lacks the integrated service of the Kindle. The 3-D TVs lack the content and broadcasting services, not to mention that many households just upgraded their TVs. And Google Buzz doesn’t really offer much differentiation" from other social networking tools."

That doesn't mean those products won't succeed or capture consumers' interest, he says, but "they may not be huge runaway hits" immediately.

Incremental change vs. game-changing
Consumer technology products have seen "a huge amount of growth the last six or eight years," says Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for The NPD Group. "That kind of stuff just doesn’t continue on. You can’t generate that level of excitement; it's not feasible."

Some of the products introduced in the past year, from digital cameras with a viewfinder on the front and the back, to a flurry of e-readers, to the iPad, represent "incremental improvements" on existing technology, and are not "game-changing," he says.

But that's OK, Baker says.

"If the iPad does all the kinds of things that we know people like to do, and it does them better and easier and gives them a better experience, that’s a great product," he says. "It doesn't have to revolutionize the world, it just has to be a better product than what’s available today. I’m not saying it is better; I’m saying if that’s what consumers view it as, that’s great."

Most look forward to new stuff
Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, says the organization has studied "technology overload and information overload and techno-weariness in its various forms" over the years, and finds a "pretty consistent story: The majority of tech users are more or less happy with what technology does for their lives," and looks forward to changes and improvements."

But, he says, "there’s a pretty sizable plurality — between 25 and 30 percent — who do express some level of tech weariness," including the seemingly "never-ending flow of new gadgets coming on the market that their friends seem to be interested in, and so they feel obliged to be interested in, even though they don’t want to be.

"There’s some level of feeling social pressure to keep up with the crowd, or to embrace new applications because that’s where everybody seems to be migrating." 

For sure, he says, "there will be people who will line up the first day the iPad is available, and who are already downloading the beta version of the new Google application.

"But there are other people who are going to wait until it’s out of beta phase, or certainly until they’ve seen a bunch of their friends embrace it, and tell them what the value of that is," he says.

"And there will be some people who say, 'I know the price of the iPad is going to fall in the next year, I don’t have to be the first one on my block to own it, but eventually it seems like a fairly interesting thing to have, so I'll give it a try.'

"And by that time, there will be some new gadget that we’ll be talking about."

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