Web Informant #312, 13 January 2003:

Why Convergence won't happen




The Consumer Electronics Show was held last week in Vegas, and the big news from the show is more talk about convergence of home electronics and computing. I got this incredible sense of déjà vu and it made me dust off a column that I wrote for Inforworld nearly ten years ago on the topic. The column begins:


"I am sick and tired about hearing about the coming convergence of consumer electronics, computers, and communications. And most of the articles that I've read about this mega-trend are focused in the wrong area.


You get the impression that soon every home will have a PC inside its TV, or is it the other way around? And actually that confusion is part of the problem: the convergence will happen, no doubt. But its first and probably only manifestation for a long time to come will be in the area of entertainment, not in computing.


I think that computers/communications/call-it-what-you-will have already changed the face of mass-market entertainment, and will continue to have profound effects here. But the result is not multimedia PCs or live video coming through your super VGA: it will be better and more interesting entertainment. The interface is not the keyboard or Windows: it is a telephone-style numeric touchpad, Nintendo, and our TVs."


Back to the present, now. What I wrote so long ago is still true, just the technologies have changed. And while Bill Gates battles out where the center of the home really is (he claims it is the PC, while the entertainment industry claims it is the living room TV), a lot of companies are going to try to sell you a bunch of crappy products over the next year, all again in the name of convergence.


The problem with convergence is that 90% of us are happy with our TVs, especially those of us that have managed to connect up DVD players and some kind of nice sound system. We don't need no stinking Windows to run our entertainment lives. Indeed, having Windows just gets in the way of things, and eventually Microsoft will realize the folly of their approach. 


Since 1993, there have been some pretty nifty advances in entertainment technologies: MP3s, TiVo, cable modems, and digital photography. But the fact remains that the TV is the center of the home entertainment universe in 2003, just as it was in 1993 and probably 1983 as well. No one (other than a few people in Redmond and Silicon Valley) wants otherwise.


Now, since I originally wrote this column I now carry a cell phone, most of my music is purchased as CDs rather than on tapes or LPs (and soon after I purchase the CD I digitize it on my home Mac as a bunch of MP3s), and I have forsaken audio and video tapes completely. My Mac has gone from a IIsi to a iMac with about a 10x processor speed increase and enough hard disk space to hold hundreds of CDs.


Yes, my Mac. Sure, I use Windows PCs too, but Apple has gotten things exactly right with iTunes and iMovie: there isn't any Windows software that comes close to these two applications. And while I love these applications, they don't belong on my TV screen. But I do like the fact that all my music is now on my Mac's hard disk, and that I can play it in any order I like and even burn a CD for the car that has my favorite songs together.


The real trouble with home entertainment convergence is wiring everything together. My Mac is about 10 feet from my TV, but those 10 feet are trouble enough for getting wires around my apartment. And friends who have more extensive gear or bigger homes are in similar straights. Sony has introduced something at the CES show in Vegas that has promise, called RoomLink, and I look forward to testing it out and seeing if it solves this one problem. But the fact remains that most people don't want to run a bunch of Cat5 wire around their homes, or coax. Yes, there is powerline technology that can help here (and I am a big fan of what Phonex and other companies are doing to support powerline networking), but it still is far more work than most citizens want to deal with.


In my 1993 Infoworld column, I mention three "laws" to set the stage for convergence. They are still very much in force. The first law is that sources for converged content already exist in terms of printed and recorded work. My second law is that no new content delivery vehicles are necessary or needed, because technology will push and extend existing entertainment vehicles. And my third law is that the best human interface for these products will still be mostly passive viewing and hearing what is placed in front of you.


I wrote back in 1993:


"The real win will be how to make entertainment products like movies, TV, and even computer software more entertaining and interesting, by way of incorporating solid technological advances that were only possible a short time ago. No keyboard is required to appreciate a Broadway show or the latest movie. Corporate networks will be safe from Nintendo-attached nodes for a long time, rest easy. But let's call a spade a spade: the coming convergence will be less animated spreadsheets and more animated entertainment. Time Warner, Spielberg, and others will benefit. AT&T and Microsoft won't."


Back in 1993, we had a character (I believe it was the young girl) in the first Jurassic Park movie exclaim with delight over finding a Unix computer that she could control with confidence. We've come a long way in a decade: the latest Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter feature films both have a principle character that is entirely computer generated from those Unix computers. Both "second" movies contain special effects that weren't even possible when the "first" movies were created just a few years ago. That's the power of our industry, and where convergence is taking us.