The Consumer Electronics Industry is Ugly

I’m sure all of you have noticed the huge flood of tablet computers in this year’s 2011 CES event in Las Vegas. Not only was it part of my dinner conversation some nights ago, it was followed up the next morning with the News announcing that 80 new tablet models (and counting) were released at CES. As a friend aptly put, it looked like companies were obliged to announce their own version of the iPad just so that they could get a slice of the pie. I fully agreed with him in between mouthfuls of Parma ham pizza.
Though I love the consumer electronics (CE) industry, I really dislike these shows, in particular the CES. These shows remind me how ugly the industry can be, and this year was no exception. A few years ago the big buzz was flat screen televisions, then a year later was super thin flat screens driven by OLED technology. Last year it was 3D (which still gets my vote for the most useless specification that everyone wants), and this year is all about tablet computers.

It is a vicious cycle.

Every year the cycle is the same. First, a huge new product/innovation trend appears and the financial numbers are staggering or predicted to be so. Then suddenly everybody who is anybody is jumping on the bandwagon trying to get a slice of the pie. As with such mass industry movements into a market, bothering on hysteria, this pie or market share logically starts to shrinks exponentially (I’m guessing) with every product launch.
This huge jump in competition would also mean that these consumer electronics companies would have to spend a lot money to steal some kind of market share in the hope to make their business plans viable. As you can see for yourself, the results are looking dismal and I’m not holding my breath to see which brand will be the first to drop their tablet line.
The reality is that nobody has a very clear product offering. If you scan the CES tablet launches, you will find the availability of many different tablet screen sizes; multi-touch or stylus control or both; and not to mention every possible design archetype or hybrid combination (dock, slide, standalone, detachable keyboard etc) that can exist between a smart phone and a laptop.
Furthermore, it is sad to see a number of well-known brands take a shotgun approach in this market by releasing products in as many archetype combinations as possible. Perhaps they are thinking that hopefully 1 or 2 propositions will stick? Regardless, it looks like many of these brands don’t know what they or their end consumers (not retailers) want. This begs me to ask if some of that development money could have been better spent elsewhere, on say a focused consumer insights exercise?

More observations.

1) Tablets running standard laptop/desktop user interfaces with icons or menus sized large enough for only mouse arrows instead of fingers. How can this still be happening? Lets design the hardware and not the software shall we?
2) One of the more interesting archetypes to come out of CES 2011 is the convertible tablet to laptop solution. This should satisfy my observations on the differences between tablet (“stand to use”) vs. Macbook Air or Netbook (“sit to use”) use scenarios. However, it looks like all convertible tablets are just too heavy to use as they range from 2.2 to 3.4 pounds. People are already complaining that the iPad, at 1.6 pounds, is too heavy! A good prototype test should have highlighted this, however I’m not surprised this slipped through, as it is always a mad rush for CES.
3) More is not more. As expected, tablet manufacturers a piling on the spec with different combinations of CPU/RAM/SSD. I was also shocked to find HDMI ports proudly marketed. So I’m going to sit on my couch, hook up to my blu-ray player or video camera via a HDMI cable so that I can watch HD movies on my tablet? Maybe I’m missing the fact that these tablets are powerful enough to edit and create HD content, thus requiring HDMI to stream it the other way? Again I’m not surprised. Most CE companies would have seen their competition include a HDMI port in their offering and decided that they should do so as well, just in case.

What did the strategies of the tablet brands miss?

The iPad is by no means a perfect product, but there is a lot that can be learnt from the product and its execution. While tablets are not a new concept or product, Apple was the first company to successfully designed it with a mass-market appeal. Even if the iPad was a tech product, it has now moved from geek only and into the mainstream. The geek crowd is not as big as the rest of the world, so why are tablet manufacturers still pushing spec?
In typical Apple fashion, they have created a great product and successfully launched it. As a result, Apple essentially owns the tablet market and had full first mover advantage. This means there is very little innovation left in the proposition for the rest of us. It is now time to look at incremental innovation and attack areas where Apple are weaker at or cannot fully reach. We know that people who buy tablets do not rank specification highly in their decision making process, and thus adding another 5 hours of battery life to the product will not get you your flood of buyers. So the thing to do instead is to focus your incremental innovation, via a user centered design process and see if you can create a product for a particular persona or scenario of use.
Finally, do CE companies think that consumers are not informed on what they are purchasing? I’m sure there might still be some uninformed consumers around, but they are a dying breed. That the last recession taught us is that consumers are now more prudent and will likely be buying the best product they can afford. Seeing that an iPad does not cost that much more, what makes these tablet manufacturers think that people will go for their product instead?


Let me close this article with this statement. I’m not out for blood or looking for a mud-slinging match. I have many dear friends in the consumer electronics industry and have immense respect for what they do. However what I like to point out is the industry is sick and there is little the players in the industry can do about it. For the sake of everyone’s well being, I’m not sure how much more the industry can sustain this vicious cycle
It is plain obvious that the consumer electronics giants have the money and are not adverse in spending it. Therefore I feel great pity whenever I see huge amounts of resources spent on nothing more than gaining market share. We should ask if these resources could have been better spent on something else? Or perhaps this time their business plan should have read Do Nothing?

  • Derek

    February 24, 2011 at 11:16 am Reply

    Here’s what I think…A lot of the consumer electronics out there are driven by marketing. So much so, marketing has a strong influence on what the consumer buys, which may not necessarily reflect what they really need. As a result, more ridiculous load of unnecessary electronic clutter!

  • JuanO

    February 13, 2011 at 10:52 pm Reply

    The biggest problem here isn’t so much the industry but the consumers not knowing what they really want. We, as consumers, dictate what we want depending on where we spend our money. But is it really our fault if we are badly informed on what makes a “good” product. Sadly, many people don’t understand or care why a properly designed piece of technology is important. The Consumer Electronics industry gives us what we want, and most of the consumers eye’s cross when you talk to them about Interaction design or allowances. It’s easier to spend $100 versus $500 when, on the outside, you’re getting more for less.

  • Wen

    February 11, 2011 at 7:42 pm Reply

    which make me think the reason why untalented designers usually decide to go to consumer electronics design as technology and marketing dictate the design so theres no need to design anything new.
    Just Copy….

  • Brian

    January 31, 2011 at 9:59 pm Reply

    @Avies – Indeed, the business does make the world go around. But they are incredibly short sighted and risk adverse. The best is when both design and business can work together, that is when the magic happens.
    @Chris – I’m still studying that. That market is tough but often their gaming products have also a lot to do with the company’s overall objective. Don’t forget Sony does a whole lot more than Nintendo (who is primary games focused).

  • Chris

    January 29, 2011 at 11:29 am Reply

    Oh wonderful Brian!
    We can start by critiquing the new Sony NGP. I’m not sure its got better design than the PSP Go personally but it’d be awesome if you threw up a post on it. I’d love to hear your thoughts about it and the handheld market (Nintendo also) in gernal as far as design.

  • Avies

    January 28, 2011 at 2:26 am Reply

    I feel you are right the way products flood the market after a small buzz. Same thing happened with the touch phones too. Everyone behind a new faster touch phone with upgrades of hardware or software. No one seems to be upgrading the touch experience since the iphone though. Looks like Business takes over Designers, most of the time.

  • Chris

    January 27, 2011 at 7:39 am Reply

    Thank you for posting this.
    Someone else who sees it. I’ve felt this way for a long time and now I don’t feel like a lunatic fro thinking I was the only one seeing whats going on.
    More please.

    • Brian

      January 28, 2011 at 12:27 am Reply

      Hi Chris,
      You are not the only one! Stay tuned for more and thanks for the kind feedback.

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