The tens of thousands of people who visited "Live 95", the consumer electronics show at Earls Court in London - which finished yesterday - found an industry in a state of flux. In gadgets, simplicity is no longer good enough. But complexity is too, well, complex. To succeed, modern consumer gizmos must balance these conflicting needs. The answer? Computers.

Everywhere you turned there was a computer, or at least a microprocessor. Are you thinking of buying a car hi-fi? It cannot be any good unless it has something programmable. Have you got lost in the vast hall? (Not an impossibity.) Buy a global positioning system to find your way around. Would you be looking for a television? These come with computers too, now. But they all look like unassuming black boxes.

The show had its high points: the Gladiators, the funfair, the free Russian fur hats (all too small for adults), the cars with built-in hi-fis that could deafen and, who knows, injure.

It also had lows: the serried ranks of people sitting obediently, as though at school, being tutored by a loud woman with a microphone about how to use Windows 95 (isn't this the operating system that is meant to be so simple to use that you do not need lessons?); and the Live 95 TV station, which tried to turn the whole event into a television spectacle for the attendees to watch.

How bad was it? Well, it made GMTV look very, very good.

Meanwhile, those eager to create their own entertainment flocked to the Internet providers such as Pipex and Demon, which were knee-deep in eager punters. BT had a hugely popular Internet cafe ("maximum 20 minutes per person per screen") and half a dozen other organisations offered free surfing on the Internet. As usual, the line capacity was not equal to the task, making the displays slow and frustrating.

Sanyo showed off its 3-D TV, which does not need special glasses; people queued up to have a closer look. Grundig and Nokia showed off their digital TV decoders; people walked past. Olivetti showed off its Envision, a PC made to look like a VCR, which can connect straight into a VCR or a TV - a truly groundbreaking product. People stopped briefly on their way past. ICL showed off its PCTV, a PC that can get TV. People looked at it as they walked by.

On this showing, only the Internet and car hi-fi can succeed in holding people's attention for any length of time. Will Live 96 be able to offer the Internet, with music, in your car?

Comments