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Gadgets need to be simpler, readers agree

Readers agree that gadgetry has simply grown too complex, though a few argue that consumers also need to take responsibility.

Last week’s column on consumer confusion in the high-tech world clearly struck a chord, and the vast majority of mail was from readers agreeing that gadgetry has simply grown too complex, with a few dissenters.

Chris Eldridge, Harrisburg PA: Too often manufactures want to load the face of their stereos up with as many buttons, dials, and gadgets as they can, simply to impress buyers. Equalizers, for example, look impressive but shifting the bars completely up or down seldom produces very much of an effect. The best and yet simplest stereo face I ever came across used just "one set" of play/pause/stop/seek buttons to control the CD player, the radio, and tape player: not three duplicated sets of buttons. Such "cut to the chase" simplicity should be vigorously sought and meticulously refined. If there has to be a special action group or section in a publication that focuses solely on this facet then so be it.

James Bucholtz, Weston, CT: For nearly 6 years I headed Corporate Planning and Development for all of Sony's US operations. This was back in the early 80's when we were growing at 25% a year in an industry growing less than 5%. It was understood that all our products would "work when they came out of the box", and that you didn't need to read a manual to figure out how to operate it. Your article correctly lays the blame at the feet of PC geeks who build features into devices that no one needs and then consider it a badge of honor if the user can understand all the acronyms and struggle through their documentation to make it work. Peter Drucker said it best when he cautioned us that nobody needs a product that can do everything. They need one product that can do one thing well.

Sony was also a leader early on in creating sets of products that work well together, which has the added benefit of consumer lock-in to the brand. Apple has definitely taken a page from that playbook — generally speaking, Apple products don’t play well with others, but are usually quite simple when used together. The ultimate logic of that implies that if Apple wants to own the living room they’ll need to produce Apple-branded large video screens, receivers, etc.

Brian Olson, Westcliffe, CO We have satellite TV at our house, HD, a state of the art Dell Computer with non-linear video editing and an iPod, among other toys. So we're reasonably clued in to how this all works. But it’s getting way too complicated. Gizmos, bells, whistles and widgets might appeal to some folks, but my age/income demographic is the one that can actually afford to buy this stuff. And for the first time, we're moving from "Early Adaptor" to "Wait and See!"

I wouldn’t be surprised to see much more focus on the boomers as a market for simplicity.  There’s a best-selling new cellular telephone in Japan, for example, aimed at that demographic: it does nothing but make phone calls. But I also think it’s a myth that younger consumers have some magic tech gene that makes it all simple for them. I received a number of e=mails from people who work in high technology who say they can’t figure this stuff out either.

Jeremy, Charlotte, NC: I work for a highly-recognized tech company, solving problems at a bit level, so I consider myself a super tech person. After recently completing a home entertainment system upgrade, I don't see how anyone who is not a technophile could sort out all the connectivity options available. Planning out a complete home entertainment upgrade would take me months! In addition the sales staff has NO clue, particularly when it involves computer-based components.To quote one recently overheard conversation in a store: "No sir, you don't need Cat5 patch cable, that’s for T-1s, you just need Cat3 patch cable to hook your machines together." I think it’s time to buy stock in good A/V integration company.Chad Chandler, AZ: Up until now I have considered myself pretty tech-savvy, but now I feel like a kid playing with toys I have absolutely NO idea how to play with. No matter how I hook something up, there's always a better, more “high quality” way to do it. And I NEVER thought I would have to pay over $100 just to hook my HD cable box up to my TV! Help!!Jack Caven, Jacksonville, FL: You wrote "the consumer electronics industry needs to reclaim "ease-of-use" and all I could envision was the flashing 12:00 on my parents’ VCR.

Good point — but come to think of it, that flashing 12:00 was really the first introduction of a purely digital interface into mass-market consumer products, which supports my thesis that it’s the digitization of consumer electronics that’s accelerating the confusion.

Steve Otto, Deer River, MN: This crazy push to integration will for the most part fail. It is the marketers who want it, not a demand from consumers. Do people really want their computer telling them that their refrigerator needs some kind of upgrade? Why would you spend time watching HDTV on your computer when you just spent $3000 for an HD set? Do I really need my computer to operate the lights in my house? Add salt to my water softener? I think not. Remember when it was said in the computer industry that it is all about content? They better keep that in mind.

Then there were some readers — about 15 percent — who felt consumers had to take some responsibility as well:

Joe, Fort Worth, TX: I think people want too much from manufacturers. They want everything to magically be set up their way without manufacturers knowing what their way is. When you start messing with a new piece of technology, you have to do research, simple as that.Dave Danielson, CT: I think the real problem is how lazy and complacent we've become as a society. You can find the answer to just about any question on the Internet. The only other significant factor is the electronics industry constantly convincing people they actually need half of this crap! The majority of us are sick of having to pay the ridiculous prices generated by a smaller group who will buy the latest trendy item just so they can say they own one. The only benefit to this ridiculous "tech race" is that when the industry launches the newest cutting-edge jewel, the old stuff gets a little more reasonable in price.Joseph Sosville, Oxford, MI: The answer to consumer confusion was provided by an IBM logo of many years ago: THINK. Consumer confusion about electronics is no more than a fancy phrase for "consumer laziness". If the consumer would THINK first and then BUY later, they would be able to undo the complexity that is created by a multitude of choices.

Finally, several readers also brought up a related aspect of consumer confusion that’s likely to become a bigger issue: what media do you get free and what do you have to pay for

Kimberley, Enfield Connecticut: What I don't like is that nothing is ever "free" once you buy the actual product — there are more services to buy than ever before. No wonder everyone is in debt. When you have to buy a service to listen to radio, when are people going to say enough is enough?  Someone has got to come up with an easier alternative to all these services, like bundling them all together.

After confusion, the next two challenges for the converged entertainment business will be money and time. The pay-per-view model, or buy-and-own (as in iTunes), may end up with people staring at month-end credit card bills in shock. As a result I do think more consumers will look for combined media subscriptions that will cap their costs — but it’s going to take a long time for the industry to sort that out.

Even more pressing is the fact that consumers have a relatively fixed amount of media consumption time that’s not going to increase just because there are more choices. Until recently each medium’s share of time was somewhat dictated by where the consumer was — at home you can watch TV, on the bus or subway you read, at work or in the car there’s radio. In the new world, when you can consume any kind of media just about anywhere you are, there will doubtless be new winners and losers in the battle for the consumer’s time.