Info Appliance Secret: Ease of Use

SAN JOSE, CALIF. (06/13/2000) - Consumers want products that make Internet access easy and fun. If information appliance makers can create devices that "do the simple stuff right," these products will explode in popularity, and could one day challenge the PC as the best way to access the Internet, suggests one analyst.

The simple stuff includes easy access to basics such as news, e-mail, entertainment, and shopping, says Michael Slater, founder of and principal analyst for MicroDesign Resources. Slater spoke Monday at the Embedded Processor Forum.

The Internet is driving into the mainstream, and in time Web access will become basic to the daily lives of most people. The PC is not the best tool to provide this type of Web access, he notes. But a good information appliance could be.

Today's PCs are very powerful, but they're still too hard to use, Slater says.

PCs are built to deliver a varied set of capabilities; an information appliance should be simple and task specific.

"About 95 percent of the complexity in a PC has nothing to do with the task," he says. The inability to get a PC to do what we want it to do has caused society a collective loss of self-esteem, he says.

To achieve better ease of use in information appliances, engineers need to get out of the design business. "That's not our strength," he says.

The user experience is the most neglected element of high-tech product design, he says. That won't work for information appliances. Developers must identify who'll use a given product and then "relentlessly focus on the goals of the user."

Web Anywhere

Future information appliances will also make Internet access more convenient--from wherever you happen to be, he says. "A PC generally lives somewhere, and we go to it and deal with it on its terms," he says. Internet appliances will reside where you need and want them.

Slater breaks information appliances into three basic categories: portable, tabletop, and set-top. Portables include cell phones, pagers, cameras, MP3 players, and Web tablets. Tabletop devices include screen phones, Web and e-mail appliances, and digital picture frames. And set-top products include game consoles, digital television recorders, and DVD players.

How each of these products connects to the Internet is the next challenge, he says. Today's dial-up connections are slow and limiting. Broadband will make them better; wireless connections will improve them further.

PCs Persevere

Information appliances will become a big part of the lives of most people, but don't expect them to kill off the PC, Slater says.

"PCs will continue to evolve," he says. PCs will remain the content-creation platform of choice, and even as Internet appliances take off, PC growth should continue, he says. He expects it will be years before information appliances challenge PCs for Internet dominance.

Slater obviously believes there is a future in Internet appliances. The analyst, who founded MicroDesign Resources in 1987, says he plans to step away from the firm to run a new information appliance company called PhotoTablet.

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