Five critical digital media trends from CEA’s chief economist

You might expect the head of research at the Consumer Electronics Association to kick off his keynote presentation with a look at the hottest new personal devices coming our way, but Shawn DuBravac wanted Wednesday’s audience at the Digital Media Summit to make sure they took a good look back at the analog world we are quickly leaving behind.

“There were almost no digital products in 1997,” said DuBravac, chief economist with the CEA, which is best known for producing the annual CES in Las Vegas each January. Instead we had things like the Sony Walkman and VCRs. Today, the average U.S. household has 25 devices, many of which are connected to the Internet. “Even the bathroom scale is connected. That has broad ramifications for digital media and technology.”

DuBravac’s advice was directed at the marketers who will be looking at the range of devices and online platforms as vehicles for communicating their message, but there were also some insights that could be useful for startups and SMBs who are trying to make headway in the tech space. Among the key takeaways:

Circle back to simplicity: One of DuBravac’s first slides was not a new tablet but one of the first TV remote controls from Zenich. It was large, brown and looked clunky to hold. It had another striking characteristic: only four buttons. “You could change the channels, mute the volume, adjust the hue and that was about it,” he said.

Contrast that with a more modern remote DuBravac showed that featured a confusing array of 29 buttons. This was followed by LG’s recently-announced Magic Wand, which uses voice and gesture control and goes back to a form factor with less than 10 buttons. “We seem to move from simplicity to complexity,” he noted. Technology designers should know the history of their product and market in order to improve usability.

What works there won’t work everywhere: DuBravac showed an early screenshot of Netscape, which proved revolutionary for early adopters of the Internet who wanted a better way to navigate the Web. It didn’t take long before a number of companies tried to force-fit the desktop browser experience onto mobile phones, with disastrous results. DuBravac thinks we may now be seeing the same thing with apps, as companies begin trying to build them into more traditional consumer gear like television.

“We tend to take what’s successful and push it to other devices,” he said.  “Just as the browser wasn’t perhaps the best tool for the mobile phone, apps might not be the best thing for things like the television. We need think harder about the evolution of content distribution.”

Capitalize on what’s getting collected: Most IT professionals are now beginning to wrestle with big data – all the unstructured data, like e-mail messages and text, that are buried within companies and trying to make it useful. DuBravac sees a lot of the same thing potentially happening in the consumer space, in part thanks to the increasing proliferation of sensor technology. He pointed to devices that can measure how much time people spend sleeping, or all the check-ins that happen on social media sites like Foursquare. “All of that location data always existed,” he said, “We just couldn’t take it from an analog world and into a digital world.” The companies that recognize how to take newly collected forms of information and provide value will be the next big tech success stories, and the best friends of strategic marketers.

Waste much, want more: It’s not just consumers that benefit when the costs of producing certain technologies become more affordable. Apple would have never been able to bring a graphical user interface to the world in 1984 if the price of computing power hadn’t fallen.

“When something becomes cheap, we waste it,” he said, suggesting a more modern example with mobile phones, many of which now have two microphones built into them. “We’ll soon get more (microphones in phones), so that even if it’s not parallel with your mouth you’ll be heard. There’s no reason we can’t integrate that type of technology into every device.” Which means for startups and marketers, what may look like commoditization may in fact be brand-new opportunities to gain competitive advantage.

Prepare for an early exit strategy: Even as new technologies are allowing fresh entrants to established markets, DuBravac told the Digital Media Summit to expect mass consolidation among many of today’s players. “This is a fundamental truth about industrial economies,” he said. “There used to be hundreds of players in the airline industry. Not anymore. We’ve seen the same thing with the auto industry. We’re already seeing that within the digital media space with the Huffington Post and AOL.” In other words, start up small, but go out big.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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