When it comes to consumer products, the adage "keep it simple, stupid" cannot be over-emphasized.
Take the television remote control, for example. Today's models have dozens of buttons, but the vast majority of people use no more than the same five buttons which debuted on the original models 20 years ago: power, volume up/down, and channel up/down. There is a 2% portion of the population that appreciates all those other buttons, but the other 98% simply get confused, and if they accidentally press one of those "extra" buttons, they can spend hours struggling to get their tv working again.
As our office PCs invade our living rooms, the complexity is confounding most consumers, and it seems to be getting worse by the day.
Several months ago, I met an experienced technology lawyer in New York who was excited to tell me about his recent discovery of Gracenote, which happens to be one of my portfolio companies. His circuitous path to Gracenote astounded me.
First, he spent a couple hundred dollars buying 99 cent songs on iTunes. Eventually, he started complaining to a friend that he felt suckered by Apple because the cost of his new iPod paled in comparison to the cost of all the songs he bought to fill just 5% of it. He had no idea it was possible to rip CDs!
But the story gets even better. He didn't have a broadband connection at home, and he didn't think to dial up to his ISP before ripping (who would?). At first I didn't understand why he would weave that fact into his story, but then it dawned on me. Without internet access, there was no way for iTunes to connect to Gracenote's servers and download all the metadata (song names, artist names, genres, etc) for each CD. The poor sap was so relieved to be avoiding iTunes fees that he didn't mind manually entering the metadata for the first 85 CDs he ripped. He just didn't know any better.
Then one day he happened to be online while ripping his 86th CD, and he was quite pleasantly surprised to find the metadata appeared automatically when iTunes connected to Gracenote. After $200 of wasted iTunes purchases and several hours of unnecessary typing, he finally figured out the right way to load music onto his digital music player.
And he's no dummy. He's a college graduate with a degree from a top-10 law school. The technology is just too complicated.
BVP partner Ron Elwell recently met with executives at one of the top consumer electronic superstore chains. He learned that these are among the most common questions posed to the chain's in-store employees:
"I'm trying to decide whether to buy an MP3 player or an iPod."
"Will I break my CD when I rip it?"
"Isn't it illegal to download music?"
It also turns out that the chain was struggling to keep memory cards in stock. After some research, the store executives realized most consumers don't know how to get pictures off their digital cameras. Many just fill up their memory cards, put them in a shoe box, and then buy another card!
I suspect most of my blog readers will laugh at these anecdotes (I sure did). But most consumers can actually relate. Consumer technology products are just way too complicated for the average Joe. This stuff needs to get a lot simpler before consumer products can really "go digital."