A Handful of Thoughts on Consumer Electronics

Posted on Jan 14, 2010 in Design Strategy, Opinion, Research, Trade Shows, Trends

Having visited the past three editions of the Consumer Electronics Show, I am now looking back at a “Vegas hat-trick.” While I just won’t warm up to the artificial lights of Sin City, the trade show itself has become all too familiar and has ceased to hold surprises. Yet there are a few things worth mentioning – five of them to be precise.

1. Personal Favorites

Apart from products somewhat detached from bigger strategies like Haier’s completely wireless TV (no electricity or video signal cables needed) or Asus’s notebook study sporting translucent fabrics, the company that most impressed me was Lenovo – their Skylight and Ideapad U1 seem to break the paradigm of what netbooks have been for the past years, by introducing new architectures, interfaces and with that also new usage proposals. I also got to play briefly with Lenovo’s 乐-Phone (pronounced “Le-Phone”, meaning “happy phone”) that looks like it will be a rather decent Android-device. In combination with a large amount of product releases, the company did position itself as an innovator on an otherwise dreary marketplace.

While those personal highlights might seem to be utterly “small picture”, I concluded that this is due to a complete absence of bigger ideas. My personal theory behind this finding is, that technology has gotten in the way of well thought-out consumer products, which leads us to the second point that I am making.

2. Technology vs. Consumer Electronics

To start with examples, there are two categories of consumer products that have seen drastic changes in their technical possibilities during these past years at CES:

  • TV’s were thinand bigin 2008, got even thinnerand biggerin 2009 and they now seem to disappear into 2-dimensionality, while at the same timenot fittinginto any living room. 3D TV technology on the other hand was a big topic in 2008, became more apparent at last year’s CESand the devices were omnipresent in 2010 with announcements that there might well be a 24-hour 3D TV channelin 2011.
  • Besides incremental innovations in television technology during its last three editions, the CES has seen the “Tablet PC’s” of the early 2000′s being named “MID’s” in 2008 and after another round of re-christening, the same devices are now marketed as “Slate PC’s“. Gizmodo states that Dell’s version looks like a big iPod Touch, and it appears that the product will indeed not have much more functionality than the gadget from Cupertino.

Trade show booths have been flooded with new products and new technologies year after year, yet strong attitudes and points of view of consumer brands seem to have no access to the fairground and consumers are left to wonder what to do with all that promising new technology.
How beautiful would it be if electronics makers would use the technology and turn it into beneficial products for the consumer, rather than blindly implementing what’s out there? It seems like the market is waiting for someone to step up and make a strong position, so that the rest will be able to follow.

3. The Rapid Slide of the E-Reader

And since we are already talking about “Slate PC’s”, I was baffled by the steep decline of the value of E-Readers and by how blazingly fast a rather new product category went from novelty to commodity. The first Kindle went on sale a mere two years ago, soon to be followed by its second generation and an entire hive full of Sony’s, “nook’s” and “Alex’s“.
Roaming the trade show floors at CES, it is impossible to avoid yet another little company introducing half a dozen “me too” e-readers.
Don’t get me wrong, I think there is great merit in new technologies like Pixel Qi’s displays in a reading device and – being a product designer – I obviously appreciate the object that is Plastic Logic’s Que Reader.
That said, it seems that the industry is making the wrong choice, while trying to sell their devices to a broader audience: The incremental innovation that can be observed (additional screens, larger displays, bigger storage,…), coupled with a smaller price tag just doesn’t cut it, as the overall user experience, attached services and new use models that in their combination could make for great products, are left completely untapped.

4. Mobile Computing: Hard- and Software at the Tipping Point?

When it came to information technology products over the past 20 years or so, the choice of an Intel/Microsoft combo seemed imperative and while a shift has been noticeable for the past few years, I believe that a few observations from this year’s CES indicate that the industry is approaching a tipping point, that give consumers new choices for the truly mobile information age, which – according to Gartner – is imminent.
After selling its XScale mobile microprocessor core technology to Marvell in 2006, Intel has been facing strong headwinds in the mobile arena and at this year’s CES it have been Qualcomm’s and nVidia’s technologies that arguably powered the most exciting mobile gadgets, as opposed to Intels’ battery-hungry Atom platform.
On the user interface side of the equation, the market has been searching for an alternative to the Windows-desktop paradigm, which just does not want to fit the bill for small-screen use scenarios. Ever since the advent of netbooks, it have been mostly Linux derivates like Jolicloud that attempted to compete with Windows XP, but new competitors emerged over the past few months. And while Android and Chromium cannot yet keep the user experience promises that the operating systems are making, they will very soon be able to.
I do not expect the marketplace powerhouses to stand still and am looking forward to seeing the goodies that will come out of Redmond and Santa Clara in the near future. I am sure that this competition will be great for the consumer and hope we will have products at hand that will have truly changed the landscape of consumer electronics come 2013.

5. Product Design

So what about the design of consumer electronics? While the shift from classical industrial design to experience design that began a decade ago is now omnipresent, I cannot help but being utterly disappointed by the lack of accomplishments that my profession can post. While I found products and their interfaces in 2008 and 2009 “not very touching“, I can only but report that nothing much has changed since then.
Next to a general lack of figurative transparency, interfaces on handheld devices are quite obviously not made to be used byhands, with interaction elements still being too small and cluttered to help users achieve their tasks. And don’t get me started on the experiences you get from the silver screen: UI and graphic design seem to have mostly been standing still in the mid 90′s and interactions are confusing and clumsy at best… it’s pitiful.Every now and then Hollywood shows us that user experience could truly be natural, but in reality most novel interactions that we come up with are eye-candy features like BumpTop that don’t add much value for the user, are limited to a certain area of the experience and impractical for everyday tasks.
Unfortunately, truly novel and game-changing graphical user experiences like 10/GUI‘s study have not found their way into mass-produced gadgets yet and were absent from CES. The excuse of the discipline still being young simply does not hold water. It is time for a shift on a broad scale towards better user experiences.

Parting Wishes

I certainly do not want to part without expressing a wish for Consumer Electronics Shows to come and hope that CES 2011 will have major headlines other than Elvis’s 76th birthday or the availability of fluffy phones in additional colors to pink.

I wish for new products to be convincing not only in one or two aspects but holistically, starting from technical specifications, industrial and interface design up to integrated services and I wish for consumer electronics companies to make choices and decisions for their customers, so that they become advocates for the user rather than just impersonal institutions that sell “stuff.”

This post was first published on Carbon Design’s blog.

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So, what do you think?