Every company wants to develop the next iPod and some say a PC-TV combo could be that elusive Holy Grail. It's time to stop living in a dream world. By Digital Journal Ranter-in-Chief, Jack Kapica
Digital Journal -- “What’s the Next Big Thing?” bellowed my editor, startling the investment bankers at the next table in the restaurant. “What’s coming after the iPod?” He poked his fork into the air for emphasis.
Frankly, I have no idea. Everything I could think of was not really new, not what marketers call “a disruptive technology.” New gadgets are mostly new spin, incremental improvements, cosmetic changes, and the same old technology packaged in smaller, sexier boxes.
My editor was right about one point: We haven’t been excited by much since the introduction of the iPod, which chief Apple polisher Steve Jobs unveiled back in 2001. Other technologies? Forget blogging — it’s just regularly updated websites by people who often have little to say. There’s Slingbox, exciting me to watch local television from Toronto while on vacation. When I’m travelling, I usually want to see something different than my local blood-and-guts roundup on Saturday night. Video conferencing? I still can’t see it prevailing outside the boardroom.
Skype is useful, but once perfected it will be just another telephone service. Wi-Fi has not changed my life, only made a small part of it more convenient. Personal digital assistants are old news, no matter how many new features Palm glues on them. And frankly, I’m bored to tears by the Blu-ray and HD-DVD format war.
Don’t get me wrong. None of these advancements alone will change the world but they will do so cumulatively. Our search for a single revolutionary item is simply a failure of perspective; we’re not programmed to get excited by cumulative change. Since the beginning of the microcomputer revolution, we’ve been trained by marketing mavens to look for the Next Big Thing in a world where every little thing must be bright, shiny and revolutionary by itself.
So the fever dream for tech visionaries swirls around the mirage of PC-TV integration. As unrealistic as it may sound, a future with PCs doubling as TVs excites even the most nascent startups. And of course, the biggest high-tech companies view the PC-TV trend as a goldmine that could turn them into millionaires overnight.
I Want My PC-TV
Microsoft led the charge in 2002 with its Windows Media Center Edition operating system, which was based on the notion of bringing many digital technologies into one package. It wasn’t a spectacular success, largely because Microsoft insisted that only PC manufacturers be allowed to install the system in computers with the right components. Still, the concept of the Media Center Edition will form the heart of Microsoft’s next operating system, Vista, due out in 2007.
Chipmaker Intel followed suit a little later, offering a vision called Viiv, which was basically a set of standards for multimedia processing. And ATI, the Canadian graphics chipmaker recently bought by AMD, came up with its own set of multimedia standards called Avivo. (I am not enough of a conspiracy buff to suggest there is any collusion among these tech titans, but surely they must have all conspired to use the letter “V” to lend this technology a sense of coherence. Think I’m joking? The code name for Microsoft’s next operating system after Vista is “Vienna.”)
The PC-TV convergence has been around for some time, and we’re just not buying it. For better or worse, the desktop computer has become a tool entirely separate from television. The first is active, the second passive. The first is what marketers call a “two-foot experience,” meaning you sit close to the screen. The second is a “10-foot experience,” meaning you flop on the couch farther away. We seem to be happy with this for now and we won’t be desperate to change this arrangement unless we see something sufficiently compelling.
Of course, the industry is still trying to sound upbeat about the prospects for converging TV and the Internet. Market consultants at Texas-based Parks Associates estimate 30 million U.S. households will have an entertainment network by 2010.
In Canada, a survey by pollster Ipsos-Reid breathlessly reported earlier this year that 60 per cent of Canadians would “like a home theatre system that would allow them to access movies, the Internet and the stereo all in one central media hub.” That poll was commissioned by Hewlett-Packard to support the introduction of its HP MediaSmart LCD HDTV, which promises to let people connect it to computers in the home to play digital content on a 37-inch high-def screen. It will sell for almost $3,000, a big price tag for what is essentially a medium-sized TV.
A system like this is designed more for the benefit of the entertainment industry than for you and me. The setup strikes me as nothing more than a convoluted way of allowing copy-protected DVDs downloaded legally on the home computer to be shown on the TV in the next room.
But will you want to surf the Net from your bed or couch? That would mean squinting at tiny website text, or typing email in an awkward half-lying position. It would be like using your BlackBerry to replace a keyboard and mouse.
Writing recently in the online magazine Slate, Paul Boutin cast a gloomy eye on the prospects for computer makers hurtling to all-in-one media centres. He dismissed PC-TV hybrid products as “aiming for a sweet spot that doesn’t exist,” and added that “in theory, TVs and PCs were supposed to converge and spawn one hybrid media device. In practice, they touch on the couch without breeding.”
Boutin concluded that computer companies are listening too closely to what people say they want as opposed to watching what they buy. He argued that if we truly wanted a converged PC-TV experience, there would’ve been legions of do-it-yourselfers planning open-source projects. But there aren’t any.
Then again, in early 2007 Apple is joining the fray of PC-TV hopefuls by introducing iTV, a product that will wirelessly convey digital content from a computer to a television. Much like it did with MP3 players, Apple can turn a seemingly complicated technology into a ubiquitous trend.
Other manufacturers are also preparing for the anticipated multimedia future. Lycos, MSN, Google and many others have offered email services with massive mailboxes in anticipation of the flood of video clips you’ll be swapping with friends. EMI Music has just licensed its entire catalogue to a legal file-sharing network called Mashboxx, founded by former Grokster CEO Wayne Rosso. And Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, the brains behind Kazaa and Skype, are working on software for distributing TV shows and other forms of video over the Web.
All this activity, and more, is an act of faith in a future that is at best uncertain. I just hope the right molecules in this primordial soup of nascent technologies will get together to form the Next Big Thing, and that it will really thrill us beyond expectations.
Then the industry can declare V for victory.