Converging technology has turned fridges into televisions, and phones into cameras, but just how far will convergence take us?
They say the world is converging. Every year we welcome another remote to the living room, and a new level of frustration at trying to get the phone, PDA, or other new toy to communicate with the PC.
Just look at the humble fridge -- its technology, until now, has been relatively unchanged since the 1830s but in 2005 you can have Internet connectivity, and eventually the intelligence to order the ingredients for this week's meals. Microsoft is also looking at convergence in the home with its Windows XP Media Centre, which enables home PCs to incorporate digital video and replace the hi-fi amplifiers and set-top boxes.
For years different vendors have been pushing the vision of interactive television, combining free-to-air and cable TV with the Internet, and enabling users to interact with television programs. Given Microsoft's dominance of the PC operating system, and success with the Xbox, replacing television with an XP-based PC would create a new market.
Microsoft is arguably the closest to having a device that meets the needs of both PC users and TV watchers, aided by the rapid growth in LCD and plasma televisions that have a sufficient resolution for using a PC. There are a few challenges that remain, however: we're still talking about a PC with a TV tuner, not an appliance you'd add to the television cabinet.
In Australia we are a little behind the rest of the world, missing out on a free Electronic Program Guide which adds to the usability of the TV tuner -- this was a big factor in the success of Tivo in the UK and US.
Also missing is the ability for a media PC to stream audio and video to multiple televisions using "XP Media Extender".
Most convergence activity, for many years, has been around the PDA which extends the notebook computer to a handheld device that can hold a diary, manage contacts, send and receive e-mails, and perhaps even run some spreadsheet or word processing applications. With great foresight, Apple's Newton (back in 1993) showed what was possible but this did not capture the market.
Palm was the first successful PDA that spawned a number of competitors, and a battle between operating systems slowly being won by Microsoft with Windows CE. A phone was then integrated into the PDA and at the same time mobile phone companies started adding PDA functionality.
But one of the most well-known converged devices in today's society would have to be the iPod, a device that more or less turned Apple's fortunes around and has reached sales of more than 15 million world-wide. This was rapidly followed by a number of less successful Windows-based portable music players, a sign of the battle of music standards as each side attempts to replace the ubiquitous MP3 standard with proprietary music files (WMA for Windows and AAC for Apple).
As more and more music is downloaded and digital photography continues to increase, the large hard drives of the portable music players are rendering other music-capable devices obsolete.
The question is: where to next? Aside from the phone and PDA, most converged devices don't meet a real need. Few devices retain the functionality and ease of use required as they try to do more things, so here's my wish list: add a phone to the iPod, make it easy to synchronise with Windows (or Mac), and leave out the 0.5 megapixel camera and gimmicks that don't meet any real need.
Oliver Descoeudres is marketing manager at network IP/Internet network infrastructure builder and solutions provider NetStar Australia. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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