Monday, August 3, 2009
What new gadgets are on the market that will make your life easier? How can using green electronics save you money? We chat with a technology expert to break down the latest and greatest.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Most of us don’t have as much disposable income as we used to so we may be holding on to the old cell phone or computer a little bit longer but that doesn’t mean that electronics wizards have stopped coming up with great new stuff. When we all have some money again, there are going to be some wonderful new electronic gadgets to choose from. Smart phones are getting smarter but so are TVs and music systems. Computers are getting smaller. There’s even a developing green electronics market, and biometrics may be coming to a vending machine near you. With me to discuss the wonderful world of electronic gadgets is my guest Jim Barry, with the Consumer Electronics Association. Jim, welcome to These Days.
JIM BARRY (Spokesman, Consumer Electronics Association): Hello, Maureen. Nice to be with you today.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you have a question about the latest version of your favorite cell phone or MP3 player? Have you heard rumors about some great piece of technology that’s about to come out? Give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Jim, let me start by asking you about cell phones. Now, the iPhone has started a wave of touch screen phones on the market and not all of them are even smart phones, they’re some mid-range phones that have these touch screens.
BARRY: Yeah, touch screens is, or touch screens are, one of the hottest areas in all electronics. They’re coming to these tablet PCs and even desktop PCs now. There’s no doubt that the iPhone touch screen is the coolest of all, but you have new ones I have along here with me, the G1 from T-Mobile, the Google Phone uses the android operating system. This has a pretty cool touch screen, too, the new Palm Pre. The Blackberry, the new Blackberries all with touch screen. And some of them actually, like this Google Phone, actually has a – it has a very cool touch screen but it also has a keyboard.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, I see, yeah.
BARRY: Some folks like a little of both. And depending on your finger size and all the rest of that kind of stuff, it can – they – it can be daunting to use a touch screen. For some of us, it’s even more daunting to use some of these tiny keyboards. But it is one of the hot areas of smart phones or even just any old phone. And smart phone – what we call smart phones, some people call them the electronic Swiss Army Knife. It’s something that you can make phone calls on but you can also – you can get on the internet, you can check your e-mail, it’s got maps, it’s got cameras and camcorders and music players, all of these in one handheld device. That’s the hot area of phones in general. Phones have…
BARRY: …been around for – well, wireless phones…
BARRY: …first cell phones, now the digital wireless phones for about 20 years. Twenty years ago, some of us of a certain age remember, the small ones were the size of a brick. Much of that was the battery in the phone. They’ve gotten much smaller even as they’ve gotten much more – added many more functions and they last a lot longer even with much smaller but much more powerful batteries.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I wonder, is the touch screen so popular these days because people are just tired of trying to figure out, okay, I hit asterisk and small ‘r’ and then…
BARRY: I know.
BARRY: Well, you know, my daughters, teenagers, can text with the best of them and depending on the phone – Now, they have some smart phones now but if they try to use my wife’s phone, my wife has a more conventional, basic phone, and even I have a hard time with those. We have to go through all the letters and the rest of that. So it is – That’s one of the other things in all these electronics, you know, we – you mentioned the economy and so forth, and this is going to be a difficult year for electronics, although electronics tend to do better than some other consumer goods, we’ll still buy about $165 billion worth of this stuff in the U.S. this year. But one of the reasons that anything—any of these products—gets mass market, gets popular for a lot of us, it’s got to be easy to use. If it’s not easy to use, if you have to program a computer’s been around for a long time, you used to have to know programming languages. A hundred years ago to drive a car, you had to know how to – you got to be a mechanic and get out and crank it up. Now virtually everybody—while I am in California now, I flew in from Boston last night—everybody here has a car. I would bet that an awful lot of people here know what’s going on under the hood but a lot more have no clue what’s going on under the hood, so it’s the same thing with technology. You really don’t have to know what’s going on under the hood. As these things become more mass market items, they have to become easier to use.
CAVANAUGH: And I – Just before we leave smart phones, I – I’ve heard of 3G wireless communication.
CAVANAUGH: But now I’ve been hearing about 4G. What is that?
BARRY: Okay, those gees stand for generations. Okay? So the first generation, again, were the old cell phones. Then we got the first generation of digital wireless phones, then the second generation. The third generation is where we are now, and now we’re starting 4th generation. And without getting into too much technology, basically what it means is they’re getting wider highways and faster connections so that you can do more stuff with them. The internet, which really as a consumer activity, has only been around for about – less than 15 years, ’96 was when it really started taking off, is something that’s getting faster and faster, wired and wirelessly. And as it gets faster, you can do more things. You can now – you can get on the internet, you can get websites, you can do pictures and send them and take them. That takes speed and it takes breadth of the pipeline that it’s going through. So the 4th generation that they’re starting to work on now, generally what it’s going to mean is you’ll be able to get more stuff more quickly through wirelessly to your handheld device.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Jim Barry. He’s with the Consumer Electronics Association, and taking you calls if you have a question about some of the latest electronic gadgets on the market, 1-888-895-5727. Jim, what is the Consumer Electronics Association?
BARRY: Ah, the Consumer Electronics Association is a trade group. It’s a nonprofit organization that is probably best known for producing, every January, the big international Consumer Electronics Show that’s held in Las Vegas. It’s the biggest trade show in North America, the biggest consumer technology show in the world. Been going on for 40 years now. Been in Vegas for about 30 years. And it’s where all the people from all around the world come to see the stuff that’s going to be on the store shelves in the coming year and in future years. It’s the place where the VCR was introduced years ago, where HDTV was introduced. The CD player was introduced. And the Consumer Electronics Association also works – does consumer research, does standard setting, lobbies in Washington and state capitals, does a lot of different things on behalf of its members and there’s more than 2,000 members of the association. Just about any electronics company that you’d see the brand on a store shelf is a member. And it also – so it does all of those things on behalf of those guys and does educational kind of stuff, things like I do. I travel around and try to help people understand all this stuff because the good news is you now have a lot of different ways to do things that you once only had one way. To watch a movie, you used to go to the theater or watch it on a TV interrupted by commercials, period.
BARRY: Now you’ve got a lot more choices. That’s the good news. The bad news is, you’ve got a lot more choices. What do you do? How do you pick the right device for you? So we do that type of stuff as well, trying to help folks out with that.
CAVANAUGH: That’s very interesting. And how do you keep up with all the electronic gadgets? I mean, do the various companies send you their prototypes or how do you – how do you figure out because there’s so many of them.
BARRY: Oh, I know. Well, I don’t usually deal in prototypes although at the show we see stuff that’s going to be a little farther down the road and I’m – I’m – started in this as a writer, so I’ve been around this for about 30 years so I’ve really seen the growth. It’s really since the late 1970s when we had the first personal computers, the Apple II, and then we had the PCs, and the VCRs started in the late ‘70s. That really started this boom in all of this electronics. And then the deregulation of the phone companies started this telecommunications boom, so just about all of this stuff started about 30 years ago. I was fortunate enough to get into the writing about this at that time. So back to your original question, how do I keep up? Boy, it’s hard because there’s new stuff…
BARRY: …all the time. But what we try to do is when I travel around is take products that are in the stores now. We have some websites that we’ve developed that are much more consumer oriented to try to help people understand all this stuff so that when you go into that store and you see that wall of new Blu-Ray DVD players or flat panel TVs, and say where do I start? Well, we’ve got a couple of places where you can start before you even go in the store to try to help you make those choices.
CAVANAUGH: Interesting. Okay, so you do a lot with consumers as well as with the electronic companies so during this recession, during this summer recession time, what are those items that are actually moving?
BARRY: Well, there’s a couple of things. The phones that we just mentioned, smart phones. And, of course, those are a little bit skewed because in some cases you can get them for very little money, if not for nothing, when you sign up for the service, so that’s a – the service provider is underwriting part of the cost. Flat panel televisions, HD and digital televisions are selling – are way up. For the manufacturers, it’s not such a good story because the prices are way down so there isn’t as much profit in, but sales are up. Net book computers, the small, light easy-to-travel-with notebook computers—I brought one into the studio with me here today—that’s a very hot area. That’s something that’s up by about 20%. So we have some areas that are down. When you think about it, electronics in the automobile, that’s a – been a big business for a number of years. It used to be – we used to call it car stereo, and that’s basically what it was, radio and stereo. Now, it is electronics for not only entertainment, not only music, but also video, videogames and movies in the backseat but you also have navigation and you have security, so that’s a big deal but since the automobile business has been so off, so has that part of the business. But some of the areas like net books, like flat panel TVs, like smart phones, and another new growth area are these e-books, electronic books. This is a nascent category, a very young category that’s just beginning but spurred by the popularity and the promotion of the Kindle this past year, this is something that’s really starting to grow.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I actually do want to play with some of this stuff that you brought in. I’m speaking with Jim Barry with the Consumer Electronics Association. I do want to take a phone call thought. Don is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Don. Welcome to These Days.
BARRY: Hello, Don.
DON (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Hi, guys. This MP3 I keep hearing about, they keep saying, you know, this’ll work with your MP3. You know, I’m an older person and I – you know, I’m baffled by a lot of this but – and I try to grab as much of this new equipment as I can. I’m trying to learn, you know, my computer and all that stuff.
DON: But is MP3 something that’s invisible? Because nobody seems to give me a straight answer when I go into the electronics store because...
BARRY: Okay. Let me see if I can help you and don’t be – don’t worry about being an older person. You know, some of us – we’re all getting there at some stage of the – if we’re lucky. And this – electronics really for everyone. MP3 is basically a technology that compresses music so that you can send it through very tight places like phone lines or you can put it on these tiny little memory cards that we use now. And it’s become kind of a generic term for any of these little music players, like MP3 players, like iPods has also become a generic term for these portable digital music players. But MP3 is just – is one of the technologies that enables that. To be honest, iPod doesn’t even use MP3, they use a different technology but it’s become kind of a generic term. You’re talking about how to keep up with this stuff, the biggest change I’ve seen in 30 years in electronics is the pace of change, how quickly new things come about where you have things that didn’t exist a few years ago that are now in everybody’s home or pocket or purse or automobile. And not only that, the terminology, things that become generic terms, like Xerox or Kleenex, is coming very quickly too when you take things like the iPod. People call them all iPods even though it might be made by Toshiba or Sony or SanDisk or someone else. Kindle is quickly becoming a generic term for electronic books, even though Sony has the eReader, Aztec has the EZ Reader. And even Tivo for digital video recorders, that’s only one brand, one of the most popular, but that’s become not only a noun but a verb for all of these digital video recorders.
CAVANAUGH: Where could Don learn more about MP3 so that it becomes understandable?
BARRY: A couple of places. One website that’s good is called digitaltips.org, digitaltips-dot-o-r-g on the internet. Digitaltips is designed just for this, basic information. What’s a pixel anyway? We see that advertised for digital cameras. That means a picture element, the little dots you see in pictures in the newspapers, for instance. So digitaltips.org is a place that has basic technology information. It has separate places for MP3 players, for digital music players, for digital cameras, for music, for all of these different areas. It’s a good place to start. There’s another good website called cnet. That’s a commercial consumer website. Cnet.com, and that has chat rooms. They review products. They do all of that kind of stuff. That’s another good website to go to.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Jim, you did bring in some great stuff here. I want to ask you, because you have a very small Sony Vaio computer there.
CAVANAUGH: How far have computers come lately? What advancements are being made?
BARRY: Well, they’ve come far in a couple of areas. One, in getting more and more power and flexibility and also lower and lower in price, and smaller and lighter to take with us. The – You know, those of us of a certain age who’ve been buying computers for 25 years remember when you’d spend $2,000.00 for a new desktop computer. Laptop, notebook computers, there’s really no distinction anymore, between those. There used to be some weight distinctions. Those have – the price of those, they used to be $2,000.00 or more. Now desktop computers start at about five hundred bucks or less, much less than that. Notebook computers are replacing desktops. Sales of desktops are way down because a nice day like today, you want to sit out on the porch or out in the backyard or by the pool and most of us have these wireless connections in the house, and we’re using our computers more and more to stay connected on the internet. So notebooks are replacing desktops and within the notebook category, netbooks, these are the most stripped down. Basically, they don’t have a DVD drive but they’re small and light. They start as little as two hundred and fifty bucks or so. The Sony Vaio P series, the letter ‘P’ that I have with me, the neat thing about this one is it’s about the size and configuration of a license plate.
CAVANAUGH: I know. It…
BARRY: And not much thicker, and a pound and a quarter. Now this is the high end in price, around $900.00, but it has a good sized keyboard that you can type on. Again, those of us who type for a living, you want a full size keyboard and a nice screen. They have all the wireless connections you need. It has a webcam built in, so it’s really designed to be light and functional on the road and keep you connected.
CAVANAUGH: Now there’s a rumor that Apple is coming out with a very small computer, maybe the size of a book or a Kindle.
BARRY: Well, they are talking about that. And, you know, that’s a – and probably a whole series of shows on Apple rumors, right?
CAVANAUGH: Yes, that’s for sure.
BARRY: And there are plenty of those. We’ve been hearing that for awhile. We’ll have to see what happens with those. And they are – As good as they are about creating cool new products that are fashionable and promoting them, they are probably even better at keeping secrets. And they’re one of the companies that is able to do that more than just about anyone else.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. David is calling from San Diego and…
BARRY: Hello, David.
CAVANAUGH: Good morning, David. Welcome to These Days.
DAVID (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. How are you?
BARRY: Hey, David.
DAVID: I just wanted to mention I saw Bill Gates talking about adding Project Natal, which is voice and facial recognition and…
DAVID: …and recognition software to Windows 7.
DAVID: I just wondered if you could go into any more detail on that.
BARRY: Thank you for the question. Product Natal is kind of like the next – Most of us are already familiar with the Wii from Nintendo, the controllers that let you – that get you off the couch and exercise more than your thumbs, for instance. You can play tennis, you can play golf, you can play baseball. Well, Project Natal, just like there’s one being developed from Sony as well, that’s the Microsoft one, that actually involves a camera, and there’s some other folks who do it, too. It actually puts you in the action. So it’s taking pictures of you and you are then using your body as – to become one of the players in a game, for instance. It’s kind of virtual reality. You know, virtual reality’s been around for awhile with these helmets and so forth. Still primarily a theme park and commercial kind of deal, basically because that virtual reality can be so real you don’t want to be wearing one of those helmets and strolling out of your living room, that kind of stuff, and thinking that you’re in the South Seas when you’re actually on Main Street, that kind of stuff. So that’s the next generation. They’ve been talking about that. It’s not out yet. There is discussion of that being involved with Win – or, incorporated into Windows 7. I’m not sure exactly where that is but they’re not the only ones. There’s a couple of different companies. It’s kind of the next step. A lot of these things are really bringing more reality to the entertainment experience and we’ve gone from, again, those of us who remember black and white TV, to color TV, now we have high definition TV. The next generation will be 3-D TV. So you have all of these things coming, but that’s what that project is all about.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s talk, if we can, about the Kindle and these…
CAVANAUGH: …these electronic books that you brought in.
CAVANAUGH: Because it’s my impression, I don’t know if I’m correct about this, that these have been a hard sell.
BARRY: Well, they’ve been around for a while.
BARRY: Electronic books. Ereaders, Ebook readers. Again, as I said already, I’ve had several people call this other one that I have that’s from the EZ Reader from Aztec another Kindle. It’s the – uses the same e…
BARRY: …ink and e-paper. And, as I said, Sony also has the eReader. They’ve been around for a while. You can also download books and read them electronically. The – You can buy books. There’s thousands and thousands of books available. You can store over a thousand books on these devices. The one – The Aztec actually has a memory card so you can add more and more using the card. But part of it is commerce, part of it is the way we read. And reading, how important reading is and the tactile experience and the rest of that that goes with it. There are some universities that are starting to use these. I think this is really a peek at the future. Last year we bought about 500,000 in the U.S. That’s a pretty low number of these when you think we’re buying 30 million television sets and 20 million computers. But this, this year, will probably be around a million, so it’s starting to double. Promoted a lot – Because of the promotion of the Kindle and Amazon’s pushing of it, the wireless connection, I think it’s the future for newspapers, it’s the future for magazines, it’s the future for books but they’re not going to go away. A lot of people say, well, doesn’t that mean such-and-such is going to be obsolete? Very few products actually become obsolete. We still have vinyl records. They’re in a different niche than when they were the dominant way that we listened to prerecorded music. CDs are still the predominant way we buy albums but that’s changing. Certainly singles now are predominantly we download them, so that’s changing, too. But one of the reasons these – this has been slow is part of it is cultural, part of it is commercial, and that’s usually the case with a lot of these electronic products, that the technology gets out in front of the commerce and the, in some cases, the legal system, and the marketing and so forth and then it kind of catches up. Maybe a product just a touch ahead of its time but it’s coming. The next generation of these will have color. There’s some that are bigger. And also, the next generation of flat panel TVs, there’s a new technology called OLED. Sony has one in the stores right now, a small television that’s quite expensive. But the next generations of those are flexible so you can fold them up or roll them up, so think about that with flexible displays where you can then download your newspaper wirelessly and then open it up and read it on the bus, and fold it and so forth, those of us who grew up in New York and do the subway fold…
BARRY: …and all the rest of those kinds of things. So it’s one of the things about all these electronic products that’s really neat, is that we’re living in the most interesting time ever.
BARRY: There’s no doubt about it. When you think about where we were 30, 50 years ago, where we are now, the way these things keep us connected, let us get entertainment, let us store memories, capture memories of special events in our life, it’s absolutely spectacular.
CAVANAUGH: You know, I can’t believe that we’re – we actually have talked for a half an hour about this because there’s so much more we could say. But in the short time that we have left, you’ve told us about several amazing things. Is there anything that’s just come out or just coming out that really sort of surprised or you’re really looking forward to?
BARRY: Well, one of the things is really connecting all of these devices. The typical household now, according to CEA research, has two dozen consumer electronics devices, that’s everything from clock radios to flat panel TVs. If you’ve got teenagers, and those of you who are listening who do, know that that number goes up to around 40 if you’ve got teenagers. But connecting all of those, wired and wirelessly within a home network. You know, we’ve always talked about the all electric home then the all electronic home but being able to control those things. Hot day, you’re going off to work, but you want to come home to a cool house but you don’t want to run the air conditioning all day, that’s a big thing that you can do, and you can do it from your phone. You can turn them on and off. Environmental issues, another big deal. Mygreenelectronics.org is a good website. Mygreenelectronics.org. How do you recycle things responsibly? That you have – that when you buy something new, you got something you want to get rid of. And energy efficiency, also getting more important all the time. We have new energy efficient products, we have new products like this little phone from Motorola that’s made – the case is made from recycled water jugs.
BARRY: And the inside is completely recyclable electronics. So those big water jugs you see in office buildings, that’s what the case is made out of.
CAVANAUGH: And it’s very attractive.
BARRY: Right. And then you can get these – you can get these smart power strips to plug – and surge protectors to plug all your electronics in that will automatically turn off the ones that you can turn off at night and save that electricity and not have those running but leave on the ones that you need to leave on. So we’re getting all of those things. That’s one of the most exciting things, is coordinating and using all of these things more environmentally consciously and more economically. It’s more important to all of us.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for all of this.
BARRY: It’s my pleasure, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Are you going to take all of that stuff with you?
BARRY: I’m afraid I’m going to have to search everyone in the building before I leave but I will, and I hope to see you again. Okay.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. I’ve been speaking with Jim Barry with the Consumer Electronics Association. Stay with us as These Days continues in just a few minutes.