I’m writing this on a plane heading from Philadelphia to Las Vegas, where I’ll be spending the week with 150,000 of my closest friends at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show. This year’s event will surely have its share of gee-whiz products with features to wow. After eight years of covering CES, I’m expecting — hoping, really — for more of something else in this ninth edition. Ideally, this year’s CES will set up 2014 for Consumer Electronics Simplicty.
We’ve been in the midst of a “simple” revolution, whether you’ve noticed it or not. People are relying less on traditional computers and more on computing appliances.
Think of what the current smartphone era has brought: More powerful pocketable devices that are by and large far easier to use than the previous generation. The same applies to tablets. I’ve never seen an infant pick up quickly on how to use a desktop computer, but put an iPad in their hands and you’ll see magic happen.
That doesn’t mean new devices don’t have great advanced features. The difference today is that those features should just work with minimal intervention. Products that are intuitively easier to understand and use are the ones that have the best chance of success for mainstream adoption. Likewise, those products that are complicated to set up, difficult to navigate and control or simply add features for technology’s sake are challenged to find an audience.
Need a few examples?
On the software side, Instagram comes to mind. There are better camera apps on the market, for sure. But Instagram gained success because it’s easy to snap a picture, quickly adjust it with minimal editing tools or filters, and share it with others. It couldn’t be an easier experience. Sure, the social aspect has much to do with Instagram becoming a household name, but the simplicity of Instagram’s core function is a big plus. Without that, my non-techie friends would never even know about it.
How about smartwatches? I’m sure to see dozens of new entrants here over this coming week as companies vie for the space on your wrist. The ones that will impress me aren’t going to be the ones with the most features though. I’ll be looking for ease of use for the functions that I expect people will want to use often. Right now, I’d say Pebble is among the best in this category: It’s not a complex wearable, and it ticks the right check-boxes for notifications without cramming in a ton of add-on features.
A related example in wearables are the his and hers Fitbit Force devices I bought for me and my wife over the holidays. They have a small screen and one button that cycles through the half-dozen bits of quantified-self data the device tracks. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how to use them and that’s partly why I gave the product a nod on our list of favorite Christmas gadget gifts this year.
They were also easy to set up thanks to the companion app which works with Bluetooth Smart. No manual pairing steps were required: The software just scanned for the wearable and made the connection. Syncing data from the Fibit to the phone happens automatically in the background. No muss, no fuss.
In a sense, to the average non-technical person, this looks like magic. That’s far from what I’ve experienced in another area that’s sure to be hot at this year’s CES: The connected home.
Granted, I’m an early adopter and started building out my connected home in 2010. Back than, I had to choose a network type — I selected Insteon for a number of reasons — find compatible devices and install them. Plug and play, they generally aren’t. Adding a connected outlet or switch for example requires a device-specific identifier, pressing a button on the device for 10 seconds and then running to the main computer to have a server search for the device ID on network. This is not consumer friendly.
Fast forward to this year and we should see more connected home gadgets that use the more ubiquitous Wi-Fi networks that consumers already have and are familiar with. Switches, outlets, web cams, door locks and the like will — or should — be installed and usable within seconds of being plugged in.
As a tech enthusiast, I understand how much has to happen behind the scenes for that scenario. And I appreciate what companies need to do to make that happen. The average consumer doesn’t care though. They want powerful experiences from their gadgets without giving the devices themselves a second thought.
Making the “tech” invisible should be the goal for companies because that’s what makes for a potentially good appliance: Plug it in and go. That’s what I hope to see more of at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show: Less technology front-and-center and more “magic.” All the features in the world aren’t going to sell products if average consumers simply can’t use them or get too frustrated by a complex out of box experience.
Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom. Om Malik, founder of Gigaom, is also a venture partner at True.