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HIGH-TECH, BUT USER-FRIENDLY

The dizzying complexity of some of the world's highest-tech entertainment is always on shimmering display at the International Consumer Electronics Show, which made the theme that emerged this week even more interesting.

Simple is good.

Executives at some of the top makers of consumer electronics preached simplicity more than capability, acknowledging along the way that they must do a better job of making their products less complex and more consumer-friendly.

Bolstering these admissions was a survey circulated by one of the major players in digital television and other high-tech consumer goods, Philips Electronics. According to the "Philips Index: Calibrating the Convergence of Healthcare, Lifestyle and Technology," complexity is becoming a critical issue for consumers. Among the findings: Only 13 percent of Americans say technology products are easy to use. Only about one in four takes advantage of all the features on their gadgets. Nearly two-thirds have less interest in technology because of concerns about setup and operation.

"Simplicity is what people expect of technology," Reinier Jens, president and chief executive of Philips, said while unveiling his company's new marketing slogan, Sense and Simplicity.

Others hit similar themes, such as Toshiba president and CEO Yoshihide Fujii: "If a product is not simple, it will not work."

The companies, including LG Electronics, Panasonic and Thomson, acknowledged consumer unhappiness caused by the dizzying jargon used for products such as high-definition TV to frustration over getting things to work.

Of particular concern are DVD products that have different and incompatible formats, so discs for one machine won't work on another.

The timing for the mea culpas seemed odd, since this week's International Consumer Electronics Show usually celebrates the previous year's sales and builds the hype for new gadget announcements.

Indeed, the Consumer Electronics Association, the sponsor of the giant trade show, reported 2004 sales of $115.4-billion, up 12.5 percent from $102.6-billion in 2003. This year, the association predicts sales will grow 11.6 percent to $128.8-billion.

In many respects, the show reflected the good times in the electronics industry. More than 120,000 people attended, the trade show had 1.5-million square feet of gadgets and more than 2,400 exhibitors displayed their wares.

The show had the usual array of product announcements, though much of the new gear was in the form of next-generation improvements on existing technologies rather than breakthroughs. Wireless products for the envisioned connected home and mobile devices were everywhere.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates again emphasized the vision of a "digital lifestyle," where people can access entertainment, data and communications anywhere. Hewlett-Packard said it was developing a device that would allow people to enjoy digital entertainment without a personal computer.

Also expected to make it to market by the Christmas shopping season will be high-definition DVD players from several companies, which promise an even better picture to take advantage of the high quality available in digital TV sets.

Consumers also won't be lacking for TV choices. LG announced 35 new digital TV models, and other companies will be coming out with dozens of new models. The attention-grabber was Samsung, which showed off a giant plasma high-definition TV that measured 102 inches diagonally across the screen.

But a roadblock to faster consumer adoption of digital TV, according to Thomson, the parent of RCA, is affordability. Thomson plans to roll out seven 27- and 32-inch models that play standard definition TV for around $300. It's digital, but not as sharp as high definition.

"It's going to be a very confusing year for consumers as to what kind of TV they should buy," Rick Doherty, an analyst at Envisioneering Group, a market analyst firm in Seaford, N.Y., told the San Jose Mercury News.

DVD players have gone from 25 percent of U.S. households in 2002 to an estimated 75 percent this year.

Digital TV sales also have picked up, rising from 2 percent of U.S. households in 2002 to 12 percent this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Even with those figures, the electronics companies promised changes. LG, citing a study that showed return rates as high as 40 percent on DVD recorders, introduced models that will play any format. Panasonic, calling it "format confusion," announced a deal with Hewlett-Packard that will allow both companies' DVD products to work with each other.

None of that means it will get easier overnight, and past promises of making things less complex are no guarantee of future performance.

"Whose fault is that?" said Stephen Baker, an analyst with the NPD Techworld research firm. "The more things change, the more things stay the same. Who hasn't heard that song before?"

As more functions get crammed into devices, Baker says, the more complex they become. And competing standards only add to the problem, with the various sides saying their technology is superior and leaving consumers caught in the middle.

While the industry recognizes the problem, fixing it won't happen easily, soon, maybe ever, experts said.

"There are lots of ways to make that happen," Baker said. "It just hasn't."

Information from Times wires was used in this report. Dave Gussow can be reached at gussowsptimes.com or (727) 771-4328.

TECHNOLOGY AT HOME

"The Philips Index: Calibrating the Convergence of Healthcare, Lifestyle and Technology" examined American consumer attitudes toward high-tech entertainment. Among the findings:

+ 16 percent believe manufacturers have adequately researched consumer needs in advance of introducing new products.

+ Nearly 65 percent say they have lost interest in buying a technology product because it seemed too complex to set up or operate.

+ 23 percent say they use the full range of features on most new technology products.

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