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By Michael Rogers Columnist
Special to MSNBC
updated 1/9/2006 2:18:50 PM ET 2006-01-09T19:18:50

Last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was one of the most intriguing in years, reminding veteran tech watchers of the vibrant early days of the personal computer industry. In fact, look at the brands that made the major headlines: Intel, Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo. Ready or not, the computer industry is moving into consumer electronics, along with one big question: Will it also bring its knack for making products that are maddeningly difficult to use?

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This CES marked the definitive turn toward a world in which digitized content, often delivered via the Internet, will flow through wireless home networks and appear on devices ranging from 102” plasma screens to portable media players so small they get lost in your backpack. It’s very exciting for technophiles, but at the same time, it brings a new kettle of alphanumeric stew — DLNA, DVI, HDMI, 802.11n, and UWB, to name a few. And to make matters worse, the industry is confusing itself by introducing two competing high-definition DVD players: Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD. (Even shoppers who were still in the cradle during the Beta vs. VHS wars know that this is an invitation to sit on their wallets.)

In a harbinger of times to come, a recent survey found that half of new HDTV owners didn’t yet have a way (upgraded cable, satellite or antenna) to actually receive high-def material on their expensive new screens. But here’s the kicker: nearly two in ten believed they were seeing high-definition content nonetheless.  And it’s not just novices who are confused. Early last year, one of the technical audiophile magazines (in which ads for $15,000 speakers are commonplace) editorialized that audio systems were getting too complex for even its obsessive readers to figure out. More recently, the online technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal resolved that 2006 would be the year in which he actually got his Apple Airport Express to transmit music as promised.

Last week at CES, during  a panel about consumer confusion, the speakers all agreed that consumers were confused, but split on exactly what should be done to fix the problem. Barbara Gonzalez, author of the new book “Home Electronics Survival Guide”, suggested that both customers and salespeople need education. But retailers in the audience pushed back, saying that many sales people, with low wages and transient jobs, aren’t that motivated to become experts.  (That recalls an old joke from the early days of personal computer stores: “What’s the difference between a computer salesman and a user car salesman?  Answer: a used car salesman knows he’s lying to you.”)

Michael Brewer, from the public relations agency Brodeur, presented a survey that found customers weren’t so much confused as overwhelmed by the multitude of choices and options that consumer electronics now offers. “We’re cramming in all these features and selling them,” he said, “but sometimes all they want is a phone.”  This sounds like the computer phenomenon called “feature-creep.” Once a device is heavily software-based, piling on new and potentially confusing features is sometimes a little too easy.  Twenty years ago, for example, putting a new feature into a tape-based Walkman might have required retooling the assembly line. Today, adding a new feature on an MP3 player just takes a change in the software.

“Often,” Brewer pointed out, “the confusion happens after the product gets home.” His survey, in fact, showed that 56% of respondents would pay for someone to come in and help make their new gadgets actually work.  Some retailers are already capitalizing on that desire: Best Buy’s home-service “Geek Squad” has been such a success that Circuit City recently launched its own “IQ Crew”.  But those services, of course, come at an extra cost.

Networking, both wired and wireless, is becoming central to home audio-video setups — and the computer industry has never made setting up networks simple or reliable.  In contrast, Stan Glasgow, President of Consumer and Commercial AV/IT Sales for Sony, pointed to his industry’s Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA), an effort to create equipment that operates together easily.  “There is more collaboration and open standards,” he said, “than any other time in the history of consumer electronics.”  But Rob Enderle, the veteran analyst moderating the panel, quickly pointed out: “Apple doesn’t belong to the DLNA.”  (That’s reminiscent of another old computer industry joke: “The personal computer industry loves standards.  They have so many of them.”)

So far, the confusion hasn’t stopped us from buying. Last year consumer electronics companies wholesaled over $125 billion in equipment and that figure is projected to increase 8% in 2006.  But part of that increase depends on keeping customers happy and coming back for more, which won’t happen if they can’t get full satisfaction from what they’ve already purchased.  And manufacturers should also be concerned about another aspect of the personal computer legacy: in 2003, support calls and product returns added $95 to the cost of every computer sold.  The low-margin consumer electronics industry simply can’t afford those kinds of costs.

“Perhaps,” Enderle suggested at the end of the CES panel, “the next phase of competition will be ease-of-use.” If that’s the case, then the consumer electronics industry needs to reclaim “ease-of-use” from the abuse it received in the computer world.  Consumers shouldn’t need to understand the theory of wireless networking in order to play music in the bedroom — anymore than they need to understand the internal combustion engine to drive a car.  Retailers and consumers need to push back and demand that “easy to use” actually means easy to use.  In fact, maybe we could start by redefining CES itself.  How about Customers Expect Simplicity?

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