Lesson From The Web--What The Next Generation Will Expect

by , Aug 19, 2002, 12:00 AM
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We can only speculate about the future. But given the lessons of the past, products and services will increasingly be tailored to consumer demand. It is one thing to invent something. It is another to put something into the marketplace that people really want. I have worked with a number of technology and new product companies over the last 35 years. I’ve seen colossal failures and successes. Too many of the failures were driven by engineering or product development, then shipped to marketing to sell, “because it was cool.” I have seen many more successes when engineering took the lead of marketing and really wanted to know what the consumer wanted.

A few years ago, at the startup of the Web, it was common to say, “The Web will change everything.” Now that the bloom is off, the naysayers are saying (as they did then, but do now with more glee) that it wasn’t such a success after all. Let’s not confuse commercial success with consumer adoption. Consumer adoption continues to grow, albeit at a slower rate, as all technologies do as they approach market penetration. Market potential in this case is represented by homes/people with computers in their home or office, not the whole population (at least until more affordable devices emerge).

If my twelve year old, Dale, and his friends are any example, the Web has already changed the next generation. They expect so much more from products today, especially media technology products, and this expectation will only grow as they do. Because if my generation was the TV generation, his generation will definitely be the Multi-Media Interactive Generation.

My MMIG generation son burned a CD before lunch today from tunes that he had either downloaded for the Web or ripped from a CD we had bought him. Purpose? Put together a set for the afternoon while his friend came over. He then proceeded to wire his portable CD player through his PC to play the CD back.

The other day, my wife Karen was commenting on wanting to change the order with which we played CD’s on our 300 CD changer (I confess to being a music junkie). This changer, which holds about 280 of our favorite CD’s (a few spaces for new stuff) has four basic play modes: “single disc,” “single disc random shuffle,” “all discs,” and “all disc random shuffle,” (I prefer “all disc random shuffle” as the default.) It was a first generation product bought 1½ years ago and is lacking in sophisticated UI aspects. It does have the ability to plug in a keyboard and put information in where that information is not on the disc (if it is an older disc). But it does not provide the information on screen that you get from a newer player interface on a PC with a CD playing capability. And if the information is input, it only stays up for a few seconds, being replaced by CD# and track# quickly. She wanted to hear some jazz and only jazz for a while. This I could accomplish as I had planned the placement of the CD’s out by my interpretation of “musical coloration” and all of the jazz CD’s were adjacent to each other, so I went to CD #250 and put it on “all disc” mode.

As we were discussing this, Dale asked why they didn’t have a better display, a display on the remote, the ability to filter, re-sort, search, etc. Now, it never occurred to me that my 12-year-old would understand Boolean search parameters so early on, but it turns out they are second nature to him. The difference between sorting, searching and filtering is something we all had to learn when we got our first desktop database to play with. His generation will demand that such characteristics be built into all media technology products. Not just Web and not just search engines on the Web.

Another example: A few months earlier, our StarSight box had gone down. StarSight is the base technology behind the TV Guide/Gemstar onscreen guide business. StarSight invented the category and had the original patents on things like “changing channels from an on-screen prompt” and “recording from an on-screen prompt” that have become the intellectual property behind Gemstar through acquisition a few years ago. But back in the early 90’s, StarSight was a standalone company that Mediasmith worked with as their outsourced marketing group. As such, we have always had an on-screen electronic television guide, made available through a standalone unit and a subscription. Even today, it does much more than the digital cable guides, giving us control over VCR functions, genre selections, and a grid guide like the one that we see in the paper and TV guide as well as many more functions. When the box went down (required a “reboot” and waiting until after midnight to get the next automatic data dump to repopulate the fields), Dale said that he could not tell what time his programs were on. Then came the revelation. I showed him that the listings were in the newspaper. “How often?” he asked. “Every day” I responded. “No” he said incredulously. “Why would they do that when you can get it on screen.” I patiently explained to him that not all people had this feature. But for him, it was not only an assumption, it was required.

These are just a few of examples of where expectations of the next generation are going. They will want all of their media options, in multiple forms at the touch of a button. In any order and with whatever filters they want to apply. Portable or able to plug into a larger home base. They probably won’t be real sensitive to content origination, be it broadcast, cable or satellite (all of which will be recorded on their PVR), Web, radio, or some new technological way of bringing live or “recorded” content to them. But they will be reassembling it to fit their needs on the fly.

It will be interesting to see how the future of new technology products plays out. We can all give examples of nifty product ideas that did not fly with consumers, as they did not fill a basic demand. Study of the consumer and what they expect should be a basic rule in creation of new media technologies. But it won’t always be that way. However, the smart engineers and inventors will work in conjunction with marketers and market researchers to determine demand. They will be the ones who will succeed.

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