Are Americans under-teched?

When it comes to real innovation, today's consumer electronics come up short.

With PC sales in a slump, and an explosion of technical gadgetry, it’s natural to assume that the money flowed away from the PC makers and branched off into the pockets of consumer-electronics manufacturers.

Instead, the money seemed to dry up, and people are shaking their heads at why so many Americans shunned the supposed boom in consumer electronics. The answer is not that hard to figure out, and it has nothing to do with a recession or the problem with tech stocks.

My theory on why people aren’t buying as many electronics is simple: Today’s electronics are sorely lacking in innovation.

They’re awful, when you consider how little they actually do and how slowly they've evolved. To prove my point, I walked around my home today and took a hard look at my day-to-day electrical loot. My findings: The average household of electrical goods is still a backwards collection of products that do little more than they did 10 years ago.

Cordless phone
Here are all the blinding technical improvements I noted in today’s cordless phone: The antenna is a bit smaller, and thanks to the 900MHz frequency, I don’t get as much garbled interference.

But that’s it, folks. The options on the average home telephone are about the same as something from the '80s. I can redial a number, I can activate my call waiting, although the button still says “Flash” like it did in the '80s instead of something more understandable, like “call waiting."

Where’s the color LCD interface, the option to receive faxes and e-mail? Was caller ID integration the height of improvement? And what about the fact that we still have those ugly antennas?

Can’t someone borrow a page from the cell phone and build in distinctive rings for different callers, or a straight to voicemail option? Why was the answering machine the only thing to be added to the home phone?

Home stereo
Biggest technical advance: One amplifier I own, in an attempt to be ahead of the curve, has an option to plug in a DAT player -- an entire product category that never even happened.

The other amp has a connection option called “DVD." Aside from that, the home stereo seems lighter and has gone from silver to black to matte gray, but you still have to string speaker wire all over the place and manually strip off the ends of the wire and shove them in the connectors just like people did in the '50s.

One boom box I have took away the equalizer and gives me pre-set options like “symphony” and “rock," but I’m not really sure that counts as progress. Is the boom in downloadable music even reflected in the display windows when you walk past stereos in a store?

Microwave oven
My microwave is too small to boast the spinning carousel base that larger units have, but as features go, that and the “popcorn” button are pretty much as big as it gets in microwave-land.

Last year there were attempts to hook the microwave to the Internet, which almost made me fall out of my chair laughing.

How about a way simply to read the bar codes on food so the microwave can program itself? Do we need the Internet to do that? Can’t someone figure out how to have it do 4 minutes on high and 2 minutes on low automatically?

Blinding technical achievements: When I mute the sound, it goes into closed captioning automatically. I can also plug in my camcorder from a front panel instead of hunting around the mess of connectors in the back.

My screen is flatter and I am also theoretically “digital-ready.” This took decades, and the rest is still pure 1970s.

Cable box
Digital cable gives you the ability to sort through channel listings and order pay per view with a single click. This happened how many years after cable was introduced?

Standard cable, meanwhile, uses the exact same remote control design it came with 10 years ago, and you still watch the channel listings scroll up one by one on Channel 3. Most people in this country have standard cable, and that means they've been using their TVs in basically the same way since the late '70s.

What about computers?
Next column I’ll do a walk-through of the latest and greatest computer gadgets and show you (again) that most are either evolving at an Ice Age pace or simply lacking in any real innovation. In the meantime, take a long, hard look at the basic electronics in your home life and imagine if they truly did evolve into something new and incredibly innovative and useful.

It’s going to take more than a translucent color to make me head off to the electronics superstore, and my guess is that most people feel exactly the same way.

Alice Hill was the vice president of development and editorial director for CNET and is EVP of She covers technology every other week for ZDNet News, pondering everything from the wireless Web to why geeks love motor scooters and the twillight of the LCD display. She welcomes your comments and e-mails.


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