"Digital convergence:" the idea of seamlessly merging applications such as video games and DVD players with added features - and even with the interactivity of the Internet. It sounds impressive to those enthusiasts who can envision its possibilities, but the reality is that "convergence" still exists in many consumers minds as a Tomorrowland improbability - content that is too bulky in its delivery delays, flickering text and cumbersome navigation.
Yet with all the applications of convergence we read about - from microwaves that bank to Internet appliances that do your laundry, lock your doors and turn on your sprinklers - you would think that we had finally reached convergence nirvana with all of our needs fully realized. But is this really what consumers want: Yet another appliance?
Making the case for digital convergence is similar to communicating the need for high-speed Internet access in the late 1990s, when consumers limited understanding of the benefits of high-speed technology hampered its wide-scale adoption. In the 1990s, consumers bought only the bandwidth they needed to support their Internet usage at the time. The same phenomenon is happening today with digital convergence. Were finding that converging for convergences sake isnt enough to prompt consumers to buy.
Perhaps the console video game industry understands this best. Gaming companies realize that wide consumer adoption depends on the ability to deliver an enhanced, easier, more exciting user experience. In short, convergence should bring to mind not a device that lets you do more, but one that lets you do whatever it is youre doing - only better.
Before we delve into the gaming market, consider how consumers use the devices they already have. Currently, nearly 30 percent of U.S. homes have computers with modems, and almost all U.S. homes have a television set. Yet studies show that consumers have little desire to send an e-mail or surf the Web from their TV - illustrated by the failure of the WebTV Networks model - and are even less enthusiastic about having to look to their PC to take advantage of the Internets offerings. When it gets right down to it, consumers really just want high-quality home entertainment thats simple and easy to use.
This is where companies such as Planetweb come in, implementing embedded software into popular consumer electronic devices, such as game consoles, DVD players and interactive TV to allow them to do better things that are still relevant to the device. Its a different kind of "convergence" that brings entertainment features together with your existing device to create a truly enhanced experience. Its not just about making your device something that can surf the Web and play games and send e-mail and so on and so on. Its merging technologies to help your device do what it does - just that much better and that much smarter.
With gaming companies heads in the right place, the market is ripe for innovation. According to IDC, more than 25 million game consoles will ship in 2003; the majority of these will contain modems or broadband connections. The evolution of gaming consoles into more interactive and dynamic devices is a significant milestone for gamers, manufacturers and the industry as a whole.
For gamers, the advantage of connecting gaming consoles to the Internet is the ability to extend the gaming community indefinitely: Gamers can compete against other users across the world. Through instant messaging, they can share game secrets, learn to access levels they couldnt get to on their own and trash-talk with their opponents. Now, with broadband capabilities being added to gaming Web browsers, users can experience gaming with the speed and intensity that a high-speed connection offers. These developments make gaming - something that consumers already love and are fanatically devoted to - more entertaining and more worthwhile.
For entertainment buffs, convergence is transforming common devices such as DVDs and TVs into home entertainment centers, with interactive technology enabling manufacturers to set apart their products on competition-laden store shelves. The evolution of features such as digital photo viewing capabilities allow users to view their family photos on their big-screen TVs using their DVD players, and even create personal slide shows. Audio enhancements let consumers connect their MP3s to DVD players or rip songs from CDs. Were seeing digital convergence redefined in the consumer electronics market today - just as weve seen with the cell phone adding on relevant features such as text messaging, and the automobile now coming equipped with a global positioning system and even TVs for passengers.
At the same time, adding Internet connectivity can make these added features even richer. With Internet-enhanced DVD players, consumers have the ability to access extra Web-embedded content on DVDs. In addition, consumers with interactive TVs and DVDs will be able to watch coming attractions, be among the first people to see new trailers and be invited to sneak previews in their areas. They will spend time in virtual theaters, watching films with movie fans all over the world, and join online events or chats. It will even be possible to chat with actors, directors and special effects artists during the movie. With the use of a remote control, consumers can download screenplays, buy opening-day tickets to new movies and purchase advanced copies of DVD movies.
Companies that understand that digital convergence is more than an "all-in-one" device will reach consumers and draw them into this exciting new world. But widespread adoption of digital convergence depends upon keeping technology simple from the consumer perspective. Its about taking the big ideas and innovative applications and making them easy for consumers to use, while making the experience more entertaining and intrinsically valuable. As these pieces - simplicity, creative applications and innovative technology - come together, digital convergence will migrate from a Jetson-era notion to a consumer-driven necessity.
Ken Soohoo is co-founder, president and CEO of Planetweb (www.planetweb.com).
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