Stalking the killer app

It must be cool, priced right and easy to get working

Odds are pretty favorable you are reading this in a well-lit room. When you turned on the lights, you used an on-off switch. No parallel ports, synching cradles, remote controls with obscurely iconed buttons, complicated log-on routines.

And those lights really need to be on, do they not?

You ask what this has to do with television, and I say, a lot. As a confirmed gadget geek, I must tell you that most of the stuff I saw at last week's Consumer Electronics Show was way cool. But having waded through the moo-goo of carefully vetted press releases with expressions of enthusiasm by numerous development and content partners; scripted, hokey product demos; and promotional giveaways, I have to tell you that not a small percentage of this stuff is not going to sell.

That is, it won't sell unless it solves a problem or fulfills a desire without getting too complicated to use-for example, with one flick, the light switch chases away the darkness. In these times, we call that a "killer app."

"If it is not about TV, then it is going to fail," said a prescient and wise Rob Nenner, vice president of AOLTV, during a CES panel on enhanced television. "Who is paying for it? In the very end, it is going to be the consumer. If the consumer doesn't find a compelling experience, they aren't going to buy into it."

AOLTV is one of the few contraptions I saw that could be called a killer app. When it hits the market in the next few months, the real key to its success will be its ability to seamlessly integrate AOL's fabulously successful Instant Messenger (IM) software into the television interface.

IM will work with television because people like to talk about television, not only around the water cooler the next morning but during the broadcast. And like the light bulb, IM is a snap to set up. Also, AOL is as familiar a brand as you will find in the Internet space. And what's the name of that company AOL is buying?

What it will take to persuade people to buy new technology is a "price-value relationship," said Madeline Di Nonno, vice-president of marketing alliances for Odyssey, a Henson and Hallmark Entertainment Network.

With a price tag of $300 or less for AOL TV, I feel the urge to splurge.

That's until the afterglow of a cool product demo is gradually replaced by more practical considerations. Is it neat? Sure. Is it necessary? Well, no. Will it be simple to set up? I'm talking not about the on-screen user interface but about actually getting it to work with your television.

Unlike plugging an appliance into the wall or screwing in a light bulb, our shared experience as consumers has taught us that, when devices and applications are forced to work with each other in order to function, there can be problems.

At this point, it would be tempting to cite examples of frustration with indecipherable product manuals and long waits for customer support. But that's not all.

My most recent experiences have shown me a more noxious irritant: the fact that, when you are dealing with a television with lots of ports, wires, switches, remotes and even phone lines that all do different things but somehow have to work together, the service sector could use some improvement.

Sorry to say this, but too many of the techs who work with these various systems aren't cross-trained in confluent technologies that affect how their product is used. Just last month, my MSO sent a tech to my home to upgrade my system to digital cable. He encountered my TiVo box. Digital cable and TiVo have certain overlapping functions, which must be taken into account when digital cable is installed; making both operate requires a fairly sophisticated work around with a high pain factor.

Had he heard of TiVo? No. Had his supervisor? No. Fortunately, we figured it out via trial and error.

Tales like this can scare all but the "early adopters" away. I have other examples, and I'm willing to bet you do as well.

Why do things like this happen? You don't need an MBA to figure out the problem. Our technology service sector is full of quite able types who excel with products they are trained in. Not enough consideration seems to be given to getting them up to speed on compatibility issues with other products they might encounter.

So, if you are on the marketing end of one of these products, hound your techs to push the mantra of cross-training installations for the wired home.

Russell Shaw's column about Internet and interactive issues appears regularly. He can be reached at