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Convergence? Bah!

We're still a long way from a converged world.

There's no doubt we're heading in the right direction. We're told, it seems like every week, that convergence is the next big thing. Intel has it's Viiv PCs, which will unite home entertainment and computing. Skype has its VOIP service, which points the way towards a unified computing and telecommunications architecture. Devices like the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 are much more than gaming devices, and are beginning to blur the line between consoles and consumer electronics.

We're in a bubble
As tech journalists, it's easy to be told about these trends, easy to see them in ourselves and our peers. I, for one, have got a PC sitting under my TV right now, recording Scrubs via its DVB tuner card and outputting a DVI signal to my TV. I use Skype every day to converse with colleagues and friends around the world.

But I'm an early adopter. Chances are, if you're reading this, you're an early adopter. bit-tech caters towards guys and girls like you and me, those that revel in technology and want to be the first to harness its awesome power.

Our perspective can be distorted by our environment, however. I like to try and step back, occasionally, and see how technology is treating my friends, my relatives, people I overhear in shops. These little titbits of information can sometimes give huge insights into the way that technology is going to progress once it begins to make its way outside the bubble of the early adopter.

The living room
Let's take computing and entertainment for one. Intel wants a PC in every home to be a centre for media, a hub for everything, a natural accumulator of 'stuff'. It wants a second PC under your TV, recording, streaming, connected directly to a set of speakers for your living room entertainment experience. Microsoft wants the Xbox 360 to be an intelligent, yet thin client - equipped to do all sorts of crazy stuff with its triple-core processor, but devoid of enough storage to allow you to drop your Media Center PC.

As someone with 4 computers in the home, I can see where Intel's coming from. However, I found it interesting to listen to two friends of mine who have recently moved into a one bedroom flat together. It's not a big place by any means, so efficiency and simplicity is the order of the day. He owns a pretty neat stereo system, she owns a swanky DVD player. Both have been dropped, however, in favour of an Xbox. The choice was simple, they told me. An Xbox can play their music collection (and even store it on the hard drive so they can leave their CDs at home), it can play the DVDs they want to watch and it can provide them with some gaming entertainment. Why would they bother taking up room in this place with anything else? A simple 14" TV/video recorder combi is sufficient to fulfill the rest of their entertainment needs.

What does this tell us? Well, it tells us that young people are far more amenable to change than old people. Ask my mum to replace her CD player with an Xbox, and she might just keel over prematurely - especially since it took her the best part of 10 years to abandon tapes. Second, it tells us that what was attractive to these people was the functionality of the convergence, and its neatness - not only could it do everything their previous setup could do and more, it did it all in a neat package. Lastly, it says that people don't really care, for the most part, about quality. He has a great stereo - capable of far better quality than the MP3s he rips to the Xbox - but that doesn't really matter. She's happy to watch DVDs on a 14" CRT - the quality of the picture doesn't really matter, so much as the fact she can play them.

(Incidentally, this is exactly one of the reasons I think video content on Blu-Ray and HD-DVD will be monumentally slow to take off. People 'got' DVD - the leap from VHS was nigh-on quantum, and the added functionality that DVDs had with directors commentaries and outtakes and the like really sold people on the technology. However, all that next-gen optical formats offer is the same functionality, but at a better quality. Most people really don't care, because that quality doesn't enable any extra usage. People won't spend big money to have effectively the same thing).

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Wil Harris

My friends tell us that Intel is onto something when it says it wants to put a PC under every TV. Most people would love to ditch their Cable or Freeview box, video recorder, DVD player and stereo and replace it with one gorgeous box that does the lot. That much is true on this evidence, and suggests that Intel will do well. Do they care that it has HD audio or video? Will the vast majority of people, aside from gamers, give a monkeys about the quality of graphics on Xbox 360? Not a chance. Does that make the next generation of consoles, and the next generation of entertainment PCs, a harder sell? Certainly.

From living room to the great (cold) outdoors
Here's my second scenario. My girlfriend is off on holiday with her sister this week, biking around Norway (well, each to his own I suppose...) She really wants to be able to keep in touch with me while she's away, but in many cases is finding that impossible.

Now, I can sit at my desk and call a friend in Australia for nothing using Skype. If he's not on Skype, I can just call his landline using SkypeOut for around 1p a minute - a pittance. As someone who gets antsy when disconnected for too long, I make sure my mobile device is quad-band, as well as GPRS and EDGE compatible, so I can get at my data wherever I need it - and even make mobile Skype calls in WiFi hotspots.

But her problems are threefold. Number one is that getting a signal on her standard-issue mobile in rural godforsaken parts of Norway is challenging. Number two is that even when she can get a signal, calling for more than a couple of minutes is almost prohibitively expensive, with roaming rates being what they are. Number three is net access - you might as well forget about it.

So what does the converged future offer her? She doesn't care about video on her mobile phone - for her, a phone is for making calls with. What use is downloaded video if there's no signal? One thing it does offer her is a unified VOIP structure that should make calls substantially cheaper and provide better voice quality for the money, too. Every major telco is looking at switching from the redundant current phone network to an entirely IP-based system, which significantly reduces infrastructure costs. With all mobile traffic going over IP, it should make for cheaper data costs, so she should be able to drop me an email without too much hassle, for times when it's inconvenient to talk. And as WiMax kicks in to provide wireless net access in even the most remote rural areas, cellphones will get far better coverage, and wireless net access will be truly ubiquitous.

So when it comes to convergence in comms, her argument is that it's all very well making mobile phones do lots of things like play music and games - but the trouble is, it's core use is as a phone, and if it can't do that to her satisfaction, what's the point?

The lesson to would-be convergence enthusiasts, then, is - don't get so hung up on making one device do everything that you forget that it actually needs to do its core function well.

The road ahead
There's no doubt that convergence is on a non-stop march. It's good for the people that are pushing it - chip companies, software companies, manufacturers - because it means more silicon in more places.

What I, as a journalist, need to stay aware of - as this exercise has taught me - is that it's important to relate new technology back to the needs of the consumer.

What consumers need to realise is that they need to think about what their requirements are before jumping on a bandwagon.

And, furthermore, what tech companies need to realise is that just because something is 'the future', doesn't always mean people want it - at least, not without real thought being put into what people really need.