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'New and cool' ideas are hot

Jim Barry has a lot on his hands. And in his pockets. And hanging from his belt. And protruding from two briefcases.

As the spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Association, Barry is constantly juggling the latest, greatest consumer technology products the industry has to offer.Just about every electronics manufacturer on the planet does its best to help find a way for their device to make its way into Barry's bag. It helps if the products can be described with one or more superlatives like "smallest," "fastest," "newest," "most unique" or "most powerful."

"When (manufacturers) ask me what my criteria are, I say 'new and cool.' Fortunately, there is always something new." In fact, the pace has picked up since he started working in this arena 20 years ago when VCRs and personal computers had yet to hit the mainstream.

"I go through hundreds of products each year -- hundreds."

Wireless phones. Personal DVD players. Digital cameras. Digital video cameras. Miniature computers. They're all in Barry's bag for the 50-city road show Barry embarks on each spring following the association's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Barry was near the end of his spring pilgrimage when he visited Salt Lake City last week.

Barry doesn't claim to be an expert on the gigahertz inside each device he shows. On the other hand, he is so acclimated to figuring out new products that he doesn't weigh his luggage down with instruction manuals.

Barry's job makes him the envy of the budget-bridled early adopter. It has also made him an accomplished social anthropologist.

"I use the products to illustrate what's going on in society -- the things that keep us connected."

Wireless phones and pagers are established business tools, but they are increasingly being used to help families stay in touch with each other. VCRs, CD and DVD players, computer games and televisions demonstrate the way humans entertain themselves. Cameras -- film and digital, still and video -- are the tools people use to record special events and memories.

Fax machines, personal computers and the Internet have changed the way people work -- and changed where they work, with the number of people who do their work from home steadily increasing.

Barry has seen people's attitudes toward technology change over time. "The same people who gave me a hard time in the '80s because they didn't like to talk to my (answering) machine now give me a hard time if I don't have my machine on."

Manufacturers feeding products to Barry sold close to $100 billion in their wares last year. Still ahead: Barry predicts digital television and the convergence of TV and the Internet as the biggest manifestations of digital technology now on the horizon.

"New" may alliterate with "neat" but it can be more synonymous with "expensive" when it comes to technology. That gives consumers considerable angst when they contemplate big-ticket electronics purchases.

Take it in stride, Barry says.

VCRs will be obsolete some day, but they've been around long enough for most households to wear out several machines and they'll still work for years to come. Even with DVDs on the market, VCR manufacturers had a record year last year.

Analog television -- or just-plain "television" to most of us -- is mostly incompatible with digital television. But Barry says analog TV will have its place until most analog sets sputter and die.

Seventeen years after the CD player was introduced in 1982, vinyl records are actually staging a comeback among hard-core audiophiles, he points out.

Barry's final reassurance is that the angst consumers feel is far outweighed by the angst manufacturers experience on the hazy path between research and retail.

"One of the things I've seen is the acceleration in the pace of change. The window for something new to be successful opens and closes very quickly."