Digital Technology: The More Practical, The Greater Consumer Reach

It is surprising and disappointing that not enough of the digital interactive technology driving cell phones, iPods, laptops and game consoles has translated into a meaningful Internet interface for everyday products--save for a handful of cars, toys and kitchen appliances. This is a woefully underestimated void that underscores a troublesome technological divide.

Most consumer products available with Internet Protocol or interface--fostering interactivity between users and their intangible objects--are confined to the unwieldy realm of consumer electronics. Historically, they've been embraced by early tech adapters, as well as the wealthy, the young and singles who have money to burn. Universal, affordable smart cell phones eventually will emerge as an important exception.

For now, that leaves most of the general population checking their email and chatting on cell phones and computers without fully functional interactivity. Indeed, Forrester Research's Sept. 7 Benchmark Survey on the State of Consumers and Technology identifies 42% of the general population as mainstream consumers who need the benefits of technology demonstrated to them before buying digital products and services. Another 21% are sidelined citizens who will adopt technology only when they have no choice. About one-third, or more than 35% of the population, are early adopters who jump headlong into technology to discover the benefits.



Put another way, more than 60% of the general population is prepared to buy into digital products and services when they are soundly rooted in everyday aspects of their lives--a prospect that represents billions in new revenues. So why isn't there an Internet interface or interactive platform built into more of the routine products that fill our everyday lives?

Is it too soon or too expensive at this early juncture of the digital interactive revolution? Is it a conspiracy by manufacturers, credited by some to be the real controlling force in a consumer-empowered digital world?

Even with four children at home, in what has become a living laboratory, I am hard-pressed to find solid Internet applications that span the otherwise silent, inactive gap between consumers and their non-hardcore electronics stuff.

The best example of the kind of advanced, practical digital interactive applications there should be more of is the Nike+iPod-equipped running shoe, designed to provide users with personally programmed music (that corresponds to their pace or workout), training and performance data that is stored, analyzed and shared on a variety of iPod-friendly devices.

The iPod nano and the compatible Air Zoom Moire shoe, and the Nike+iPod Sport Kit (complete with wireless receiver and censors to transfer content from the shoes and companion iPod to countless other platforms) can collectively cost just under $300. Despite privacy concerns and criticism from academics that it also can be a surveillance device, Apple reports that about 1 million Nike+iPod runners have logged more than 12 million miles.

It is the most striking example yet of how something as mundane as a pair of running shoes can be transformed into an ultimate marketing-transaction event and a multimedia center. Once Apple realized that more than half of all its iPod owners used the device in their routine workouts and there was a tech-created void in the mass marketplace, the company and its visionary CEO Steve Jobs auspiciously filled it. And invariably, it altered consumer expectations and habits in the process.

It represents an even bolder step for Nike, which was not satisfied selling 200 million pairs of shoes annually and wanted to create a product that fuses with and reflects the needs, interests and uses of a buyer anxious to utilize digital interactivity in more personal ways.

The fact that the Nike-iPod initiative, now 18 months old, remains a rare example of the creative integration of interactive products and services with consumer behavior and lifestyle points to a major void in the universe. Interactivity, and more specifically an Internet interface, should not be the exclusive domain of electronic communications and entertainment devices. But it is.

The smart refrigerator that keeps an electronic grocery list and places an Internet order for pick-up or delivery at the local grocers, while keeping track of family members' daily caloric intake, is strictly an upscale perk. Nearly half of all American adults with broadband connections at home, used most often in shared living spaces, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, are finding ways to incorporate Internet-connected laptops in well-trafficked areas like the kitchen. There, family members can email, be entertained and informed, surf the Web and do homework, while programming the microwave and other kitchen appliances.

As a May Pew report revealed, the full spectrum of interactive consumers are overwhelmed with communications, entertainment, information, data management and personal productivity over a handful of cyber-connected appliances, from BlackBerrys to MP3 Players, laptops and cell phones. Interactive functionality, specific to routine consumer activities, circumstances and needs outside the realm of mainstream consumer electronics, is not even on the radar. Digital interactivity has not interfaced as well with their daily lives as it could.

Some grassroots interactivity is showing up in cars--which, like consumer electronics, are a male-dominated domain. The glut of GPS navigational and tracking devices aside, one of the most intriguing IP auto applications is the Microsoft Sync. Sync will be offered in a dozen Ford, Lincoln and Mercury 2008 models to provide drivers with hands-fee, voice-activated access to their voice mail, email and other content from various devices. Even more useful is short-range wireless vehicle telematics being used to collect open road tolls that would allow drivers to warn each other about accidents, traffic and other road hazards.

Such pragmatic applications ultimately acknowledge that consumers prefer to be engaged in interactive activities, transactions and communications that will distinguish an experience and create unique value. Surely, somewhere in the half billion new Web 2.0 venture capital investments so far this year and the widespread interactive initiatives in corporate America, there should be other worthy examples.

Creating and monetizing a value-added digital interactive loop is the big brass ring for media, entertainment and other industries undergoing a tech-driven transformation; it's the treasure chest of new revenue waiting to be discovered. But it requires understanding the nuisances of radically changing consumer attitudes and behaviors--which media and entertainment executives, as well as consumer products manufacturers, are still loath to embrace. That may have something to do with the uneasy transition from a one-way mass market to a two-way target market, one interactive consumer at a time.

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