Will Design Elegance Win the Gadget War?

Devices on display at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas are crammed with technology. But New York Times technology columnist David Pogue says companies are also rushing to make their products more fashionable.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Mondays, the business report focuses on technology.

The International Consumer Electronics Show ended yesterday in Las Vegas. Twenty-five hundred exhibitors from around the world use this convention to plug the stuff they hope you'll buy; companies including Microsoft, Sony and Dell. New York Times technology columnist David Pogue was among the 130,000 convention-goers.

DAVID POGUE reporting:

A lot of what you'll see at the Consumer Electronics Show is just what's been on display for years: more computers, cell phones, cameras and just about anything else with a circuit board. Still, every year, there are surprises.

Ms. ELAINA DIAMOND(ph) (CEMA Products(ph)): : Have you guys seen our new inflatable screen?

POGUE: This is Elaina Diamond of CEMA Products. She was very excited to show me something that looked like a rubber raft lying on its side. It was actually an air-filled projection TV screen.

Ms. DIAMOND: It comes in two sizes, eight-foot diagonal and 10-foot diagonal. It inflates in about a minute and a half, comes with its own pump. So I think it gives everybody a chance to be able to have a huge TV experience.

POGUE: Overall, though, there weren't many breakthrough new products at this year's show. No, this was a convention about making things better, products that are more refined and easier to use, that work well with the stuff you already own.

Ms. MARGARITA KEISER(ph): On the main screen, you have audio, CD, DVD...

POGUE: Margarita Keiser is holding something that looks like the sole of a leather shoe with a lot of buttons. It's a universal remote control that looks like it really could control the universe.

Ms. KEISER: And on Page 2, you've got mono or if you want stereo...

POGUE: Now in the future that Bill Gates envisions, you wouldn't need a universal remote. The Microsoft chairman delivered the keynote address at the conference, and it was clear that Microsoft's vision of the future centers on what the geeks call `convergence.' Some call it multifunction, some call it one gadget that does it all; to others, it's electronic ADD.

Mr. BILL GATES (Chairman, Microsoft): We've got a screen here that shows some of the information that we care about. We just touch it. We've got some of the kids' drawings hear, we can just grab those, move those around.

POGUE: During his presentation, Bill Gates demonstrated a futuristic kitchen video wall, filled with everything from real-time news videos to children's artwork. He downloaded some video to his cell phone, transferred it to a laptop, conducted a three-way video call and sent an instant message all at the same time.

Mr. GATES: And are all very simple to work with.

POGUE: Yeah, pretty simple for him. He's Bill Gates. What about the rest of us?

As a technology writer, I get e-mail from people all the time asking about all sorts of gadgets. Believe it or not, they very rarely ask: `When will somebody add more features to my gadgets?' Much more often, they raise: `Can't someone make a phone that's just a phone?' But to keep customers coming back to replace their old gadgets with new ones every year, manufacturers stuff more and more into these tiny brushed aluminum boxes.

(Soundbite of nuvi demonstration)

Unidentified Computerized Voice: Take Exit 132 to I-70 east in 200...

POGUE: This is the nuvi, a global positioning device made by Garmin. It's about the size of a deck of cards. The nuvi's robotic voice does give you driving directions, but it also shows off pictures, plays music, plays audio books, converts currency and even helps you get by when you're traveling in a country where you don't speak the language. It pronounces all sorts of useful phrases in almost any language, phrases like `Gin and tonic, please' or `Where's the bathroom?' Here's a demonstration from Garmin's Greg Dubres(ph).

Mr. GREG DUBRES (Garmin): So, here, I want to ask it to order a glass of red wine in European Spanish.

(Soundbite of nuvi demonstration)

Unidentified Computerized Voice: (Spanish spoken)

Mr. DUBRES: There you go.

POGUE: One thing's for sure, ridiculous is a universal language. Every year at this show, you see more evidence that manufacturers straddle a wobbly line between useful features, gee-whiz features and `What were they thinking?'

But one of the things apparent at this convention is that many companies have learned the lesson of the iPod. Apple's music player may have fewer features than the competition, but people love it. They've made it the 85-percent market share gorilla of the music world. Why? Because it's so simple, elegant and beautiful. Many of the products I saw--including cell phones, cameras and that global positioning device--were absolutely gorgeous and very easy to use. That sense of sleek style and electronic fashion is everywhere at this show, especially in the convergence device being demonstrated by Tom Pachella(ph) of Motorola.

Mr. TOM PACHELLA (Motorola): These are stereo sunglasses. So you can stream your stereo music from your phone or your iPod, listen to music while you're outdoors. It's also connected to your phone. So when you get an incoming phone call, push a button, your music pauses, you carry on your phone conversation. At the end of the call, when it's over, the music starts up again.

POGUE: Is this going to introduce into the language the phrase `I have to reboot my sunglasses'?

Mr. PACHELLA: It could very well. Absolutely.

POGUE: For the record, I looked really cool in those sunglasses.

But clearly, convergence is not for everybody. In fact, it's been a tough sell in the US. This is the fourth consecutive Consumer Electronics Show where we've been told that Americans are dying to interconnect their stereos, computers and TV sets. But for the fourth consecutive year, the digital living room is still just a mocked-up exhibit on a trade show floor. But companies are literally betting billions that you want convergence, even though you say you want a phone that's just a phone. It's a very risky bet, but maybe that's why the Consumer Electronics Show is held in Las Vegas.

INSKEEP: David Pogue, a multifunction columnist who covers technology for The New York Times and for MORNING EDITION.

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