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CES: Panasonic tries to keep things simple

January 8, 2009 | 11:30 pm

Joe Taylor LAS VEGAS -- Joe Taylor, chief operating officer of Panasonic's North American business, tells the story of how his late father had asked him to install a surround sound system in his dad's house several years ago. Taylor did so. Hours later, his dad called to say he had no idea how to work the sound system. "I don't think he ever used it," Taylor said.

Consumer electronics companies at CES are eagerly piling on more bells and whistles to their devices like shiny ornaments on a Christmas tree -- clocks that play YouTube videos, TVs that search the Internet, game consoles that make calls over the Internet and laptops with GPS. Just what will they think of next? Well, how about making technology simpler to use, for one?

As it turns out, Taylor and the designers at the Japanese electronics company have given this question some thought. We spoke with him and Panasonic's chief technology officer, Paul Liao, this afternoon to get their thoughts on how to make technology work for folks like Taylor's dad. Here's an edited transcript of the discussion.

Q: Why is it so hard to make things simple?

Liao: It's a tussle. We used to have very simple standalone products that were simple and intuitive. The products of the past were single purpose products. A TV was just a TV. A VCR was just a VCR. Today, our products are gaining the same complexity that computers have. We in consumer electronics used to make fun of PCs for having to release bug patches every week. There are multiple ways for a PC to go wrong, and multiple ways for the consumers to get frustrated and confused. But now, our products have entered that world.

Q: How do you solve that? ...

... Liao: Well, the good news is that we’ve learned a lot from our brethren in the computer industry. Secondly, electronics are more powerful than they used to be, so they are capable of doing more things for people.

Taylor: Having our TVs connected to the Internet, for example, makes it easier for us to diagnose problems and even repair them remotely. If we do our job right, the consumer shouldn't see any of that complexity.

Pau Lliao Q: Do you have design principles that guide your product development?

Liao: In Japan, they call it universal design. A product should be universally usable by anyone, whether young, old, disabled or otherwise.

Q: Give us some examples of those principles.

Liao: Things should act in a consistent way. There should always be feedback for the user so that they know what's going on with their device.

Taylor: We have something we call Viera Link that tries to simplify things. If you put a disc into our player, it knows you want to watch a movie. So it will turn on your TV and just play the movie.

-- Alex Pham

Photo credits: Panasonic