LAS VEGAS - Something's missing from this year's Consumer Electronics Show during all the pitches for new HDTVs, digital cameras and other gadgets. Where'd the geek speak go?
Instead of focusing on megapixels, RAM and lines of resolution, product makers are trying to remove the intimidation factor by focusing on how their gear can meet people's needs.
It's a "catch-up" moment in technology, with companies realizing their products do a lot more than most consumers want, and often turn them away in the process. So rather than strictly touting more powerful products, they are removing steps and adding both new design elements and reassuring words to lure everyday consumers.
"The consumer doesn't care about how many megapixels a digital camera has," said Nancy Carr, a marketing executive from Kodak, which introduced "one-touch" photo editing software at the show. "They just want to know why their photos are blurry and what are we going to do about it."
The trend is visible in both the way companies are marketing products and the features they are emphasizing.
Philips used words like emotion, wellness, pleasure and simplicity to explain its new product line-up, dubbed the "Design Collection." It sounds like European furniture but it's a collection of HDTVs, DVD players, MP3 players and other handheld devices.
Where a consumer electronics company previously might have touted technical standards, the focus is now on how these products fit into lifestyles. One Philips 52-inch HDTV has invisible speakers, which removes bragging rights for the audiophile, perhaps, but gives the set a sleeker profile.
"We will put total attention on what consumers want and need," said Andrea Ragnetti, the chief executive of what the Netherlands-based company has renamed its "consumer lifestyle" division. She said that "lifestyle experiences" will be emphasized over price and power.
In another bid to simplify, Samsung has a line of audio/video products called Touch of Color, in which everything is framed in black with red accents, and everything is designed to communicate with each other and look good. The point, of course, is to encourage the purchase of matching TV, DVD player, speakers and other products, but the contrast was striking from last year when Samsung promoted the technical marvel of a 108-inch screen.
"We still want to show the sexy hardware, and it will be sexy, but the message is more about how the phone will solve a problem," said Stu Reed, president of mobile devices at Motorola, which is also changing its pitch. "We're not going to be selling form factors anymore," he said, reverting to tech speak to describe design style.
Motorola's Z10 videophone, introduced here, will be marketed as a device that "tells stories," said Jeremy Dale, vice president for mobile devices.
Reed also noted that a large segment of the market is not interested in mobile media, like video and music, and simply want to make calls.
"We will be focusing on that," he said. "We listened."
Kodak's Carr said one reason for the industry's changing focus from tech specs to high-touch is a sign that the technology has "matured and typical consumers (not early adopters) are the buyers."
"You have to address their needs," she said, "and that's about usability and easy set-up."
In a nod to such simplicity, Kodak introduced one-touch photo editing software it calls "facial retouch." By clicking on facial retouch, the software automatically removes someone's blemishes and uneven skin tones. The alternative is more complex photo editing software.
Kodak's new cameras also include a feature called "smart capture," which Carr said is basically "autofocus on steroids."
"Cameras already have enough intelligence built in right now, so we can add things like smart capture to make processing faster," she said. In other words, the feature is intended to keep images in focus and eliminate the problem of shutter lag, the delay between when a picture is snapped and the image is captured.
Part of the problem is that consumers are buying more gadgets than ever.
Steve Koenig, an analyst for the Consumer Electronics Association, pointed out that in 1930, Americans had one electronics product in their homes, and that was a radio. That figure reached 10 devices by 1990 (VCRs, TVs, radios, stereos) and today, we have about 25 such products in our households. That includes iPods, mobile phones, gaming devices - both portable and attached to the TV.
Hewlett-Packard is trying to capitalize on the complexity of all those devices with its MediaSmart HDTV, an LCD television that compiles digital media collections of movies, music and pictures from as many as 10 computers onto the living room TV.
"It's a challenge to manage these growing digital media collections," said Karen Reynolds, an H-P marketing executive. "This is about solving that hunting and pecking problem" by making all that content available on one screen.
Some people might still find it all too complicated, but H-P thinks there's a growing need by many to keep on top of digital content. It works by loading software on each PC, and then the TV compiles everything via a wireless network. "You don't have to remember on what computer you stored those pictures from your Colorado vacation," she said.
The change was on display at the Nokia booth, as well.
In previous years, "all we would want to talk about was the specs on our phones," said Keith Nowak, a spokesman. "Now we are showing what our products can do."
And at Samsung, the message is now "life made simple," J.W. Park, the company's president of digital media, noted during a press presentation on Sunday.
But things don't always work so smoothly, even for tech executives.
While showing how a new Samsung camcorder can wirelessly send video directly to a Samsung HDTV, the connection failed.
"What happened," Park tried to joke. "It's supposed to show something."
While fiddling with the devices for a few moments and after a press member suggested to connect a wire, Park throw in the towel and a technician came onto the stage to help.