So, conventional wisdom about Bang & Olufsen is, as far as I can tell, overpriced, bad sounding junk for the “Jet Set”. ("Jet Set” being a particularly old fashioned way of saying “stupid, snobby idiot”, given the context.)

I think that it’s easy to try to slot Bang & Olufsen gear in with the ultra-high-end audio equipment because their prices do tend to be significantly higher than typical CE—your Sony/Denon/Harmon Kardon/Pioneer/Panasonic lines. There’s no question that it’s expensive stuff.

What brought this to mind recently were a pair of recent trips to Costco and BestBuy. I was looking around at trends in CE design, and it was truly depressing.

Take phones. Every major company has a multi-handset wireless phone “system” on the market at this point. And every one of the ones I saw in these stores, without exception, was a button-happy nightmare in plastic. Each was trying to “out-feature” the other, with a million conferencing modes, color screens, GHz differences, and more elaborate “space-age” styling ("space-age" being a particularly old fashioned way of saying “horribly silver-and-chrome-tastic”, given the context).

Oh, and every one cost about $100. And—no doubt—would last a few months, just like their predecessors did.

What’s funny is that there’s a really, really good example of terrific telephone design (both UI and industrial) out there—and it comes from Bang & Olufsen.

Back in the late 90s, Bang & Olufsen released their Beocom 6000 series of cordless phones. These phones were quite minimalist & modern in the B&O style, and centered around a simple UI based on a circular “scroll wheel” with a button in the center.

The 6000 allowed up to 6 handsets to be used, and had a phone book that allowed 250 names to be added: the names added automatically synchronized between the handsets, as did caller ID and the redial lists.

Menus were simple: scroll through the stripped-down menu system with the wheel, click the center button to accept (or move to a sublevel). Name entry was easy, because the letters could be selected quickly with the wheel—and lookups went just as fast.

Even the battery management was fantastic: the handsets lasted forever, and the charging system did not kill the battery in a week. Or a year. Or two years.

Bang & Olufsen recently updated the phones with the Beocom 1, which: adds two-line capability; refines the existing concept with a better display and menu system; improves sound and call handling; allows more handsets; and offers even better battery life. What it does not do is make it more complicated.

It works incredibly well. Stripped down, stylish, not overly-featured. Expensive, but worth every penny. You can learn a lot about how to design really good consumer-product UI from this phone system.

Take a look at the page above, and then look here. Seem familiar?

B&O was there first, thinking different… and smart companies learn from the best.