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UI as the next battlefield in CE (Part 1)

Posted: 02 Apr 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:touch screen? speech recognition?

User Interface (UI) is touted as the next battlefield in consumer electronics and, as products mature, the race to differentiate based on the UI will accelerate. Rather than compare minor differences in features sets, consumers will increasingly make purchases based on ease of use and access of features. Specifically, when innovation in the core functionality of an end product approaches maturity, consumers increasingly turn to the industrial design and user interface of the product to guide purchasing decisions. Further, the UI is now defining the personality of a device and becoming an integral part of the branding equation, thereby creating emotional ties between consumers and their devices, and ultimately building loyalty to a particular product.

With the functionality of two devices being relatively equal, UI becomes the crucial differentiating factor. This trend is particularly noticeable in the mobile phone market, and is now spreading to other, more mature electronics devices. Motorola's RAZR, for example, had effectively the same functionality as other handsets, when introduced. However, its sleek clamshell design and unique keyboard set it apart from the competition. Initially, Motorola was expecting to ship 750K units of the RAZR per quarter. However, within one year, demand increased faster than expected and volume shipments climbed to over 6.5M units per quarter, making it one of the company's fastest growing devices. Several years later, Apple took the UI to a new level with its iPhone, which revolutionized not only how consumers interacted with their phones but also how they related to them. Prior to the iPhone, Apple had no presence in the wireless handset market; the unique design and user interface of the product helped the iPhone adopt a cult-like following and ignited competition in the "Smart Phone" segment. Currently, Apple ships over 37M iPhones per quarter, in arguably one of the most hotly contested and competitive consumer electronics markets in the world. Additionally, the iPhone remains one of Apple's most highly profitability product lines, according to industry sources, partially due to its smart choice of its touch screen user interface combined with its easy to use software applications. Today, we are seeing this trend proliferate to other maturing products such as notebook computers, which are now transforming into the new category of "ultra books" with integrated touch, speech and gesture recognition.

Given the fickle nature of consumers, features that are well designed become ubiquitous, while those that don't work well typically stall. Users have come to expect devices to work simply, even when performing complex tasks. However, consumers' low tolerance for sub-par user interface generally leads to decelerating adoption of a particular feature that does not meet their standards, thereby slowing the overall market adoption. Two good examples of these trends are touch screen and speech recognition (SR). While there is no question that consumer demand for both features remains high, each has taken a different route in its adoption curve. On one hand, touch screens have become an integral part of many consumer electronics products, largely due to their elegant design, but more importantly due to their ease of use. This is apparent in many end markets including mobile phones and tablet computers, among others, where effectively all major original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and original design manufacturers (ODMs) are offering products based on touch screen input. On the other hand, speech recognition adoption has somewhat lagged in embedded applications and remains in its early stages of adoption. While it is clear that speech recognition as a UI will eventually be adopted widely, the only consumer end market that has started to use SR broadly is the automobile industry, primarily in infotainment applications. To date, only a handful of companies offer cars with embedded SR, while multiple others are planning to introduce systems with embedded basic SR features. Expectations remain high and the profile on SR is accelerating, as was apparent in the recent Consumer Electronics Show, where multiple OEMs and ODMs introduced other CE devices with integrated SR. Prominent market research firms have cited recent studies that indicate consumers generally remain somewhat dissatisfied with embedded SR, particularly in automobiles, resulting in a slowing of consumer usage or in many cases consumers simply stopping use of this feature.

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