Time to think beyond convergence?

Bobby O’Reilly
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For the last ten years or so, technology pundits have talked about ‘convergence’. The theory of convergence goes something like this: as processors get smaller and more powerful, and high definition screens lighter yet less expensive, all of our consumer technology gadgets will collapse down to a single device that does it all.

Ultimately, there’ll be a ‘winner’. TV, games, the internet and all forms of communication from the phone to IM will come through one hardware gateway and everything else will become obsolete.

But we still use radios, don't we? Image by alexkerhead@flickr

It’s a charming idea, but one I’ve always been slightly skeptical about – it’s just too simplistic a model for the way we actually buy and use stuff. After all, I’ve owned my TV for ten years and my radio for longer still. If the ultimate convergence device was released tomorrow, it could be a decade before I needed to buy one. By that time it would be a better model with more features than the one you can buy tomorrow. There’s always going to be something better coming, and something older remaining, which have to co-exist.

That’s why it might be time for the electronics world to stop thinking about convergence for a while, and think about diversity. The relationship between the internet and TV is a good example.

For a while now, the conventional wisdom has been that the internet and TV would collide in one screen that provides a gateway to entertainment and information from whatever media you want. Old fashioned TV watching, though, has proved remarkably resilient. According to Nielsen, we still watch, on average, 37 hours of TV a week compared to spending just four hours on the internet at home.

I find that hard to believe, since I’m hardly ever away from my laptop, but I wouldn’t describe myself as a typical user of technology, so…

Intel hosted an event in London yesterday called ‘Screen Futures’. It’s an interesting time for TV: Google is about to launch its set-top box, Hulu has just begun offering subscribers access to almost anything they could want to watch, and in the UK Project Canvas is attempted to create an open source platform for the distribution of TV in the future.

Intel said that its strategy for thinking about the future is people using not one, but several screens simultaneously.

One screen to rule them all? Apparently not. Image by AZAdam@flickr

Microsoft’s “three screen” strategy launched at CES last year predicted something similar. It makes perfect sense to me: during the inauguration of President Obama, the World Cup and the UK Leaders’ Debates at least half my attention was focussed on my phone and the Twitter conversations about the events on screen. It wasn’t quite what people who envisioned ‘interactive TV’ had in mind, but it seems like a far more realistic model than trying to surf the web on a large display several feet away.

Is it time to think beyond simple convergence? What do you think?

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