Chinese manufacturers are pulling no punches with price drops for DVD recorders. Recent drops from Wal-Mart's private label brand “iLo” (actually manufactured by EastTech) to $99 are an indication that the DVD recorder market is finally in the position to take significant share away from DVD players. However, previous lackluster sales of DVD recorders in the market due to an unintuitive user interface highlight a significant issue that could create barriers to this volume potential.
Most U.S. consumers are familiar with drastic price drops in consumer products. One of the main factors in this drop is the aggressive integration of semiconductor intellectual property into a single piece of silicon, or system on chip (SOC), reducing the amount of overall silicon and, hence, total cost of the product.
This integration has, however, contributed to a significant challenge for Chinese contract manufacturers who are competing with low-cost DVD recordable platforms. As the hardware complexity and level of integration of SOC devices and application-specific standard products (ASSPs) has increased, so has the role and sophistication of the software embedded in these chips. The DVD recorder market's slow sales illustrate the problems that can arise from poorly designed embedded software.
The biggest mistake that many Chinese contract manufacturers made is to assume that DVD recorders are just extensions of a DVD player. In reality, a DVD recorder is immensely more complicated than a player. For instance, every DVD recorder has a region-specific tuner and special optical properties to handle very complicated read/write functions. The DVD player handles only decoding of digital data, whereas a recorder must take in and process analog and digital data from the tuner, A/V inputs, and IEEE-1394 (Firewire) input from digital camcorders. The DVD recorder must also handle most, if not all, of the DVD media formats like DVD+R, DVD-R, and DVD-RW. While DVD recorder SoC hardware has been developed to process these formats, embedded software development has lagged behind, leading to lackluster sales in the retail channel. Even with drastic price drops, consumers are returning their DVD recorders at levels reaching 30% to 40%, often citing the hard-to-use interface (which is driven by the embedded software) as the reason.
For the box manufacturers, choosing an SoC or ASSP with poor embedded application software can lead to severe consequences. Well-designed and flexible embedded software is vital for the success of consumer electronic devices.
Who's to blame?
Don't be quick to point the finger at Chinese equipment manufacturers for this user experience issue. In the past, consumer electronic manufacturers developed some of the embedded software themselves, but today's highly integrated and highly complex SoCs require a huge amount of software. As a result, the responsibility for developing a user interface now lies with the chip maker, leaving most contract manufacturers with primary task making only minor “look and feel” changes to the user interface. The user-interface layer of embedded software needs to control an ever-growing list of features.
The user interface provided to OEMs as part of the software embedded in SoCs or ASSPs has been nonintuitive, resulting in hard-to-use products. Semiconductor vendors should include a fully functional, intuitive user interface in their embedded software. In theory, OEMs can include the unmodified user interface in their products, but the ultimate goal is to provide flexible software tools that allow contract manufacturers to customize the look and feel of the user interface.
Manufacturers of SoCs and ASSPs need to improve the quality of their embedded software and make it more flexible. The key to doing this is to use modular software design techniques. Well-written, modular software will also help to reduce costs by making it easier to reuse existing code, shortening the time it takes to bring new SoCs and ASSPs to market, and cutting software support costs.
Some semiconductor vendors are developing an embedded Java and HTML interface to support new DVD recorder and set-top box designs. This interface will include tools the OEMs can use to modify an application user interface quickly and easily. Companies that provide dedicated Java and HTML tools to support such needs include Planetweb and iPanel (Embedded Internet Solutions).
Retailers and Chinese equipment manufacturers have responded to lackluster sales the only way they know how: they're slashing prices. Lite-On, a low-cost manufacturer of DVD recorders in the U.S. retail market, is expected to cut its price for its DVD recorder, which also features the “Easy Guider” menu to navigate through the various recording functions. Lite-On naturally claims its interface is very intuitive, and at such low prices, the consumer's decision between a DVD player and a DVD recorder is just about eliminated.
Will the DVD player or recorder win the market share? The ultimate test plays out this holiday season in an electronics store near you.
John Barber is an analyst with Gartner Dataquest. He can be contacted via e-mail at .
I have returned three DVD recorders–not because of clunky user interfaces, but because of unreliable operation.
The CyberHome machine which started it all is identical to the ilo machine mentioned in your article.
It worked fine–when it worked, but it made too many “coasters” during various operations. Read more on my blog at:www.livejournal.com/~russj/10926.html.
– Russ Josephson
I can't believe it is the user interface, as the two units I have the firmware bugs are much worse. Are you sure only 30% are returned? Are the rest put in the trash? One unit that I purchased will reset the date and time if you press a key at the wrong time. And the states are just not right. You have to eject and insert disk to get the menus to sync up with the correct state.
The second unit I have, different brand, always manages to crash the firmware, at which point, it does not respond. You have to pull the plug in order to reset it! There is no way the average consumer can use these. I can't believe the people who wrote the firmware ever used these either! They could have done some QA to verify that the basic record/playback work.
I waited too long, can no longer return these. And I haven't been able to find any firmware updates to fix any of the problems, even though this was a selling point on one of the boxes!