A Reluctant Case For Convergence

If the Consumer Electronics Show is an indication of where hardware is heading, then everyone better be ready for the convergence of every device out there. Yet how much credit can you give to a show that featured 2,700 exhibitors but was trumped in the press by a single product announcement from Apple at Macworld that same week?

While I was there earlier this month, speaking on a Digital Hollywood panel about online video, I kept grappling with this issue of convergence. Will the Web truly become device-agnostic, with searches coming from any and every platform?

After reading The Origin of Brands by Al and Laura Ries, I've become convinced that divergence, not convergence, is the safer bet (for a great read, check out Christina Kerley's review and interview with the authors). In the first drafts of this column, its working titles included "Keep Video Search on the Web" and "Holding off on Convergence." Despite that, I'm still finding myself swayed by the powerful convergence forces brewing that connect to how consumers search. Here are four such forces:



1) TVs are no longer just lean-back devices. While most TV viewing remains passive, and often it's only on as background noise, consumers are starting to appreciate the control they can have over it. One lean-forward onslaught comes in the form of personal video recorders (TiVo et al). I've recently joined the fray, and my better half, Cara, watches my face beam when I have the chance to fast-forward through commercials, create my own instant replays during a sports telecast, or just pause viewing when we get a phone call. Separately, another big lean-forward push comes from console video games. Nintendo's Wii managed not only to get gamers off the couch, but has made gaming a physical and sometimes strenuous activity.

More to the point, last month Variety said that Xbox Live is proving to be the most successful movie download service. Reporter Ben Fritz wrote, "The relative success of video downloads on Microsoft's Xbox Live and disappointment of's Unbox point to two factors that differentiate Xbox from Amazon and its many other competitors -- consumers who download a movie want a simple way to watch it on their TV, and those with high-def TVs want high-def content. Thanks to the Xbox 360's direct connection to a TV and the console's focus on HD content, Microsoft can deliver both."

2) There's now too much content on TV to navigate by browsing. The search functionality on the PVR I use from Time Warner Cable involves using arrow keys to select a letter, and then for each subsequent letter, it only highlights available options from its database. For instance, if I wanted to look for "Queer as Folk," I'd select "Q," and then only "U" would appear, so I could quickly select that letter until I was satisfied with the list that appeared to the right. This search functionality is all right, but it's barely passable with the massive volume of content available, which includes about a week's worth of programs on 150 regular stations, all the options on Movies on Demand, other on-demand channels, HD listings, and everything else. As content from the Web (such as YouTube videos) becomes available on TV, the content will multiply exponentially, as will the need to efficiently search it.

3) Google's going there. The least surprising search engine announcement this year will be Google's locking up TV deals. The deals on the surface will really be about Google's advertising platform, with Google quick to remind everyone that it's more than a search engine. Yet, if consumers do search via their TVs, that will open up more advertising opportunities.

4) Search is inherently device-agnostic. There's nothing about searching itself that requires it to be tethered to PCs. It's just that PCs have a number of advantages, such as full-size keyboards and at least relatively easy access to all the publicly available content online. If search is a medium, as some have postulated, it's not about the device at all, whether it's a PC, mobile phone, TV, or wristwatch.


Ultimately, as video search, and search in general, moves to the TV, there will need to be some better ways to use it. My prediction: TV remote controls will soon resemble mobile phones. I could even envision a future where mobile phones are easily programmed to operate every device in a home entertainment center. Phones already have built-in keyboards, and my cell phone is half the size of my remote control, so merging the two wouldn't require too much further innovation.

Convergence will not be a smooth transition as envisioned by many technology stalwarts. It is, however, already set in motion, so it's best to start preparing now for the spiraling effects to come.

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