Dear Manufacturers: You've Had A Rough Year, But Step It Up

It seems, at least at first blush, that we are out of the slimy gullet and into the potentially less dangerous teeth of this recession. Joblessness is still high but folks I know who are working in IT and CS are in high demand. People are hiring, but not out in the open, and shoppers, as evidenced by this year’s holiday season, have a little bit of cash. But CE manufacturers, back in 2008, pulled into their turtle shells and haven’t come out. The past few years have passed in a slothful haze and I’m worried that 2011 will be another year of negative innovation.

Consider what happened this year: we saw a load of Android phones, we saw an iPad and a new iPhone, and saw some tablets. That’s it. 3D TV was a flop, most other product lines saw little or no improvement, and generally CE industry sat this year out. CES, if all portents can be believed, will be a bust as well.

People ask me every year what my favorite gadget is. That’s almost impossible to answer. Sadly, for me, it’s like asking a proctologist about his favorite patient: they all sort of blend together and none of the experiences are very nice. So what is my favorite gadget? The gadget that truly stood out?

It’s the freaking Parrot AR.Drone. That’s right. A toy. Here’s why, and here’s what manufacturers can take away from this toy.

It was completely out of left field – I wrote Parrot off a few years ago as a second-tier Bluetooth manufacturer. They were best known for motorocycle helmet compatible Bluetooth headsets. Then, suddenly, they produce something so wild and compelling that it becomes a must-see. They blew up the news cycle by literally becoming a different company to many people. Now this doesn’t always work. Monster Cable tried to do it with their audio gear and while some of it is impressive they really haven’t shaken the old “Monster is too expensive for what it is” stink. Hopefully this is the year people stop thinking of the cable and more about the speakers and headphones.

It took multiple existing technologies and mixed them in an amazing way – Search online for mini-helicopter. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of weird Chinese models available. All of them are garbage. You fly one into a lamp or tree and it’s toast. But dammit if I haven’t been eying those helicopters for years. Then the AR.Drone came along. It mixes the mini-helicopter craze with Wi-Fi and with a totally unique and intuitive control scheme that anyone can use. No more pitch and yaw – you just move your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad around. No difficult set-up – you just connect to a Wi-Fi access point that is built right into the drone. You could say Apple does this all the time but in fact all manufacturers do this all the time. They take a board, a chip, and some memory, and slap it into a familiar permutation. There’s no magic to it. The magic is in creating a permutation that people actually care about.

It put the future in our hands – Check out that video, above. It’s a quadracopter flying through hoops. For most of the summer we were amazed by those things. Suddenly – BOOM – there one is, available to purchase for a few hundred bucks. It’s as if suddenly Parrot brought something out of the research labs into our homes. That’s important. CE manufacturers sit on ideas for years. They’re afraid to inject new stuff into the pipeline. Heck, Olympus is probably announcing, at best, a cosmetic change to their amazing E-PL1 camera when the E-PL2 arrives next week.

It wasn’t designed by committee – The wisdom of crowds is fine when you’re betting on horses but horrible when betting on gadgets. The HP Slate, for example, looks like it was designed at a series of four one-hour meetings by a team that ate too much all-you-can-eat pizza at lunch. Even if a team built the AR.Drone, it seems more like a device made by a mad genius in a basement somewhere than a toy that aims to tick off boxes on a spreadsheet.

Let’s get out there, manufacturers, and win one for the Gipper. Sure, times are tough and you have little grasp on what real humans want, and sometimes we don’t know what we want ourselves. But for years I’ve had at least a few items – besides the obvious gorillas of this year – to bring up in conversation. This year it’s a freaking flying kids toy. Let’s fix this, people.