Frozen Lettuce, Warm Beer

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Interactivity is not for everyone. As Time Warner Cable's well-documented (and abandoned) experiment with the Full Service Network showed, customers didn't really care about all the extra whistles and bells.

The MSO did learn — judging from what it's now doing in deploying video-on-demand — that viewers want the control to watch what they want, when they want.

Here's an analagous scenario: Appliance manufacturers are hell-bent on computerizing the kitchen. They might learn that most people who own refrigerators just want to eat what they want, when they want.

But I can't. It's been about three weeks since a towering, stainless steel, side-by-side, state-of-the-art refrigerator overtook our kitchen. We remain baffled by the little computer that makes it tick. Even the service man who came out after we threw up our hands, said: "Gee, I've never seen one of these. I have to check with our engineers."

Well, he's still checking. The real problem here is that the appliance has too many features we don't care to interact with. There's a door lock — oh, sure, in my house — and, funnier yet, an alarm.

First there was the head of lettuce that didn't quite adapt to the fancy bin it's supposed to thrive in. It froze over. While all that was going on, the beer wasn't quite chilling quickly enough for a little shindig we were having.

We concluded — my husband and I, not the repairman — that there's something wrong with the water supply that's supposed to simultaneously keep the ice-maker, the water dispenser and some super-duper, temperature-sensitive meat tray all flawlessly humming along in harmony. But nothing really works unless that high-tech meat tray is loaded with about 12 pounds of meat. The irony of all ironies: We are not big meat eaters.

Now a plumber is on his way. Frankly, after all of this, I don't want to interact with any appliance, whether it's a refrigerator or a television set. I just want it to do its humble task and do it flawlessly. And I don't think I'm alone.

There's an analogy here for cable engineers who are now reconfiguring what is going into their respective set-top boxes. Presumably, their marketing counterparts have accurately zoned in on what cable customers really want from their TV sets.

But as we all know, that's not always the case along the new-product design and manufacturing decision-making chain. It seems the engineers always win.

Talk to anyone about their VCR experiences and they all pine for the days when there were only three giant, clearly visible buttons that would allow them to easily view and record — without have to refer to the manual or get new eyeglasses to read the tiny buttons.

Today's VCRs, with an assortment of 20-plus tiny buttons, have turned users off. Most say they use them primarily to watch video, not to record it.

Cable engineers are currently faced with a host of choices to gussy up the interactive television experience. Hopefully, marketing has correctly measured consumer demand and acceptance. But in reality, that's hard to do.

If you simply ask people if they'd love some new, souped-up gizmo, odds are they will answer yes — because it sounds new and improved.

But there's a danger there: Even though customers think that they might want an alarm or a door lock on their refrigerator, there's the potential of winding up with frozen lettuce and warm beer. And to me, that does not translate into new and improved.