In Sony's flagship San Francisco electronics store a salesman in a pressed black suit is initiating me into the mysteries of Sony's $899 digital picture frame.
The photo frame consists of a small LCD screen surrounded by a granite-colored border, with a protective glass facing. The salesman picks it up and presses a small button cleverly concealed in its side. A control panel flips out.
He presses three or four buttons in quick succession and pulls up a number of small thumbnail images. This is how I am to select the digital photo that will appear in the frame. "Oh yes, I understand," I say, not understanding at all.
And this, the salesman demonstrates, is how I display a slide show of all the images. "Mmmm ..." I say knowingly. Meanwhile I'm thinking to myself, "But it's a $900 picture frame!"
Here, in one small package, are all the sins of the big electronics companies: great technology and beautiful design combined with scant attention to usability or practicality.
Sony's CyberFrame, introduced earlier this year, is one of a range of products intended to showcase the company's new Memory Stick technology. The others include a line of digital cameras and, coming in January, the "Memory Stick Walkman" -- a $400 digital music player that will be able to play MP3 files.
The Memory Stick is Sony's name for a line of small storage cards, much like the compact flash cards used by portable computers and digital cameras. The company hopes to have a whole line of devices that use interchangeable memory. Thus, one can take photographs with a Sony camera, then take the Memory Stick out of the camera and plug it directly into a computer, a photo printer or, yes, the CyberFrame.
The idea is beguiling. There's no good reason, for instance, why one should have to mess with a pile of cables to transfer images from a camera and a computer. The good idea, however, suffers from three key problems.
First, Sony is basing its new line of products on a storage technology that's incompatible with existing formats already in wide use. "Memory Stick is built from the ground up to hold images, audio and data," says Sony spokeswoman Dulie Neiman as she tries to explain the advantages of the format. OK, but other formats do a perfectly good job of storing all those, too. That's the great thing about digital storage -- once you've turned it all into bits, the hardware can't tell the difference. One would imagine that Sony would have learned from years of trying to sell Betamax video recorders in a VHS world, but apparently not.
Second, as the world's premier electronics company, Sony seems infected with the dangerous assumption that its products will sell at any price. The upcoming Memory Stick Walkman is to be priced at $399. Meanwhile, Amazon.com is selling a basic model of the Diamond Rio, a competing MP3 player, at $139.99 -- $89.99 after a $50 manufacturer's rebate.
Finally -- and in this Sony is little different from virtually every other electronics maker -- lots of great new digital appliances are afflicted with user interfaces that are virtual studies in unusability. Buttons that are impossible to push invariably call up menus that are equally impossible to navigate. You know the saying about having to get your teenage kid to program the VCR? With the new generation of electronics, things haven't changed a bit. The control panel on the CyberFrame is cleverly concealed, looks wonderfully sleek and is impossible to manipulate.
Admittedly, the CyberFrame is something of a loaded example. Sony knows it will never be a mainstream product. "We have a long tradition of developing products that are really innovative to help consumers see the possibilities of the new technology," says Neiman.
Fair enough. Auto manufacturers develop concept cars that will never even make it to market, and we still find them interesting or even innovative to look at. But it would be awfully nice to see a company like Sony, which devotes a huge amount of attention to turning neat technologies into beautiful objects, devote a little more thought to how they are to be used.