SAN FRANCISCO -- It's a truism today that seems so ... well, simple: the hottest tech companies -- in the eyes of both consumers and investors -- make products that are amazingly easy to use.
But for every
, there are many tech titan wannabes who fail to grasp that concept.
That was the message from a lunch panel of seasoned tech executives that included moderator Pip Coburn, Mike Homer, Brodie Keast and Kirk Loevner, which took place on Monday at the ThinkEquity Partners Growth Conference at the Ritz-Carlton.
Though the "easy" road may seem obvious, innovations in technology often fail to perform as promised. Coburn, CEO of Coburn Ventures and a former technology strategist at UBS Warburg, lamented that technology is often only easy to use for its designers.
That, of course, is not true for Apple's wildly popular iPod music player. Part of the reason is the corporate culture at Apple, agreed the panelists, all of whom enjoyed stints at the Cupertino, Calif.-based company.
Homer, chairman of digital content software maker
, noted that Apple CEO Steve Jobs was "fanatically obsessed" with the user experience and that ease of use was a "religion" for Apple.
Loevner, the CEO of medical software maker
, recalled studying a videotape of a customer opening the box of his Apple computer and untangling cords. It ultimately prompted Apple to wrap cords differently and become the first company, according to Loevner, to use an "open me first" card on its products.
As a result of simplicity, elegance and branding, Apple users develop an emotional connection to their devices, Loevner said.
"Apple will focus on the simple essence of what makes a great product," echoed Keast, general manager of
consumer division. Apple does two things well, he said. It makes powerful technology easy to use for consumers and it errs on the side of simplicity.
In the scheme of things, Homer acknowledged when asked to make a case against the company, "
Apple is kind of no big deal." By comparison, the browser and Google have had greater market impact than Apple. And for Google, he noted, ease of use also is a religion.
The biggest challenge now for Google will be focus, Keast argued. When a company is growing like crazy, it can be hard to figure out where to invest, he said.
Like Apple, TiVo has developed a loyal fan base with its video-recording technology, which Loevner praised as a better product than the competition's. But the company -- whose subscribers number only 3.5 million after six years -- has perhaps underestimated what Keast called the single biggest barrier to growth: consumer inertia.
"People don't see a problem...that needs solving," Keast said. The behavior of having an "appointment" to watch a particular program at a scheduled time or channel surf to find a show is well-ingrained, he added.
The panel, meanwhile, pointed to a handful of other companies that seem to be subscribing the "ease of use" theory. One of them,
, Homer credits with making "incredibly well-designed products," including wireless video-game controllers used by such consumers as his kids.
Loevner, meanwhile, praised
for designing an enterprise application -- customer relationship management software -- in a new way via the Internet. "Even when
( SEBL) and
woke up and said we can do this, too, they never got it," he said.
acquired longtime rival Siebel on Monday in a $5.85 billion deal expected to close in early 2006.
Keast pointed to
, noting its transition from a stodgy player to a risk-taker in response to competition from satellite players.
But one company that hasn't gotten it and consequently stumbled was
, noted Loevner, who worked there after leaving Apple.
The computer maker behaved like a classic technology-focused company and lost sight of market changes, he said. Instead of focusing on the user experience, Silicon Graphics became all about speeds, feeds and graphics, Loevner said.
"SGI let the market pass them by," he said. Its stock is trading at a piddling 77 cents, a mere fraction of the more than $40 it fetched in its mid-1990s heyday.
An often-talked-about concept in the PDA and cell phone market -- the elusive all-in-one device -- seems to comply with the simplicity theory but it generated little warmth or excitement from the panelists.
Loevner said he hoped he was moving in that direction with his Treo made by
( PALM) but said that it kept freezing whenever he was on the phone and received a second call. He now uses a
( MOT) Razr.
His conclusion: A single-function device will always be one generation ahead of an all-in-one device. He suggested the recently unveiled Rockr phone, with functions far short of an iPod, as an example.
Keast was similarly less than enthusiastic about the media center PC, saying that customers think entertainment is different from a personal computer, and they don't want to watch television on their PCs.
Another truism may be that technology is best when simple -- and separate.