As I boarded the plane to leave the warm, sin-baked sidewalks of Las Vegas, a funny thought hit me: the Swiss Army knife company is now making MP3 players, and MP3 player companies are making Swiss Army Knives. Well, almost. I tried to reflect on what I had seen at CES, but honestly, I really couldn’t tell you what I saw. I don’t mean that we were all too drunk to remember, or even that there was nothing noteworthy. It’s just that no device had a primary function.
Let me explain… in business school, we were taught to hold tightly to our ‘core competency,’ the function that our business focused around. Everything else outside of this is ancillary, because if you’re sticking to your core competency, you don’t have the resources to spare trying to reinvent the wheel. You were taught not to be a Swiss Army knife.
Wandering the floor of CES, I was impressed with all of the multi-functionality that was stressed. “Media should be totally portable,”
the voices preached, “We’ve got the designs to help take your content on the go.”
Indeed, cellular phones had video codecs and MP3 software, MP3 players had video screens, Blackberries were everywhere, and around every corner you could find something that not only slices and dices, but also washes the dishes. As a home theatre and automation fanatic, I was in a multi-functional mobile-media nirvana.
"The MP3 player took four separate buttons to play a single track"
Back on the plane, it hit me. Why would I want to watch King Kong on a 2-inch screen? Suddenly that giant monkey, with all the impressive CGI graphics, would be reduced to 20 pixels wide and poor sound quality…for a great deal more than the cost of my local theatre, which would let me watch it on a huge screen with Dolby 95.1 or whatever.
At the show, it seemed like such a great idea. A cell phone that would allow you to take your media wherever, a MP3 player could show your photos wherever you went. But when put in action, the cell phone could do just about everything except take an incoming call… the demo lady couldn’t even figure out how to do it once the video player started. The MP3 player took four separate buttons to play a single track, and took 2 menus before you could change it to shuffle and turn off the screen (which you needed to do promptly to conserve battery life).
One product was noteworthy not for its ingenuity, but for its absurdity. Logitech released a new remote, the Harmony 890, featuring RF, IR, Z-Wave (more on this another time) and a very tiny (and by most standards, very pointless) LCD screen. I swear, the thing had no less than 67 buttons on it, not one with a label. “It’s user programmable, and you can control everything in your house with it,”
the PR agent told me. “Great,”
I replied, “But how do I turn on the TV?”
Looking almost insulted at my apparent stupidity, he proceeded to take the remote from me and executed a button pressing sequence that could only be akin to entering a vault code, and the TV turned on. He looked at me, grinning at his technological achievement, and all I could think was, “Why? I pressed less buttons to beat King Koopa, buddy. Now that was an accomplishment… you took that long to just turn on the TV."
"Looking almost insulted at my apparent stupidity, he proceeded to take the remote from me and executed a button pressing sequence that could only be akin to entering a vault code"
Is it just me, or have we gone off track here? We’re so worried about having something that does everything that we don’t care how well it does anything. Things are so multi-function now that you have to wade through complex menus to get them to do what you bought them for in the first place. A cell phone should make a call, quickly and easily. A MP3 player should connect you to your music (not home video, pictures, or escort service) at the press of a button. I don’t want my cell phone battery drained watching a fantastic explosion reduced to 2 pixels wide, I might need to *gasp!* make a phone call. Nor do I want an eight tier menu to play a song.
Now, I was not invited to speak at these companies’ design meetings, but if I has been, I know what I would have said. 2006 could be a great year in technology, if everybody would just think about the Swiss Army knife. Think about how it loses that stupid toothpick; think about the tweezers break after their second use; about the corkscrew that’s always in the way of the actual knife blade (which is hidden inside like some sort of puzzle box). Think about how every single accoutrement must be opened before you can have the privilege of breaking a thumbnail or even cutting yourself pulling a blade out. And keep that stuff away from my MP3 player, thanks.