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KS Cover no. 71 2006 April

APR 2006 :: 071

 

Convergence: come together

Even the experts can't really seem to agree on what con-vergence is, let alone when it will arrive. But the one thing they are sure about
is it will be very cool when it finally gets here.

Depending on who is telling the story, you are likely to get a very different explanation of convergence. Ask the perpetually positive, and you will hear visions of a geek utopia in which every- thing from our toaster to car navi are connected to our computer and mobile phone in a big, beautiful wireless network.

Then, when you want a more realistic idea of what the term means in 2006, try asking the people who actually pro-duce our consumer electronics and computer software. You will probably get an incongruously simple answer along the lines of the ability to down-load video from the Internet via PC and route it wirelessly to a TV and then on to a portable media device.

This is incongruously simple because after all the glossy promises the tech world has blown us over the years, you would expect a great deal more. Well, reality check, the technology that makes even this feat possible was only unveiled this January at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, and the inside word is the functionality is still not exactly stunning.

However, while it does kind of let the air out of your balloon to realise that, for the present, this is it, there are several reasons for optimism — even for the tech- and cash-challenged. The first is obvi-ously Apple Computer and its addition of TV downloads to the market-dominating iTunes Music Store and video playback to the equally popular iPod. So, yes, you can now watch TV on your iPod.

But don't curse too soon. iPod TV has generated major revenues for Apple and demonstrated that the drive towards convergence will almost certainly be powered by the profits to be made from improved entertainment services. Which surely is good news: Consumers will have greatly expanded access to content, and creators will have more opportu-nity to reach their audience.

It is easy to overlook the chance convergence presents for content/ service providers. At the moment, video downloads consist of mostly standard commercial pap, but the day when we can beam, for example, ultra-narrow cast indie film to our lounge's wide-screen TV is a'coming. The eventual effect is likely to be similar to the way in which podcasts are currently redefining trad radio. (See “Podcasting Hits the Mainstream”, KS, Nov '05.)

Get real

Content/service provision is already moving along quickly, as was demon-strated by Google and Yahoo at CES '05. Primarily known as search opera-tors, the two used the event to reposi-tion themselves as media companies. Google showed confidence in Apple's vision when it launched its own online video store, a model for a full 'digital media warehouse', while Yahoo ann-ounced plans to allow its users to access e-mail, photos and search from a TV or mobile phone.

Full marks for perceptiveness if you are thinking the whole thing looks like a bit of a scramble. To add to the confusion, Apple is also offering the likes of iPhoto, its on-line photo management software, and Google is promoting Gmail, a fully Web-based e-mail service. And then, of course, there is Microsoft, which seems to have given the world far more than we are ready for with the Media Center edition of Windows.

So, where does all this leave us? Well, although true convergence is still yet to see the light of day, as residents of Japan we may actually be among the first to see the sun rise. As well as benefiting from most of the hard/software developments in other countries, Japan also has a comparatively high penetration of broadband service, plus it is the world leader in mobile phone technology.

Whether you applaud them as functional wonders or diss them as high-tech comfort blankets, Japan's mobile phones are a giant step towards convergence and its sibling universal connectivity. Mobile 'phone' is now something of a misnomer. These devices allow us to browse the Internet, watch video, send e-mail, take photographs, process documents, record sound, pay bills, listen to music (who needs an iPod?) … virtually anywhere we are.

These mobile media devices can also already share much of their content via the Internet, which is fast becoming more a service distri-bution channel than simply a collection of Websites, with the home PC, which is itself fast becoming more a network server than simply a collection of standalone software programs. This reconceptualisation of both the Net and the PC is another important step along the path to the convergence nexus.

Get connected

To understand the new Internet, take a look at iPhoto and Gmail. Both of these services allow us to do on-line operations that were once restricted to our computer, and the prediction is that most PC appli-cations will go this way. If you still don't get the idea, send yourself an e-mail with an attached file. Assuming you have set your mailer to save a copy in your Web account, there is now an executable back up of the file stored on-line — which means no more archiving on CD, etc.

One of the main effects of this 'outsourcing' will be to eliminate expensive PC software updates. Maybe this is why Microsoft has been so keen to sort out its Media Center OS. Put simply, this new package turns your PC into a hub serving your TV, audio system and other home electronics in a wireless network, with, naturally, permanent Internet connection. You might even throw an Xbox 360 into the loop. This game console can actually run the OS itself if you want to liberate your computer.

It sounds like a great concept and probably will be when the bugs are out and the overall price comes down. But who can wait that long? In the meantime, one possible solution is Apple's OS X, which also has its own server facility. Apple has been taking a steady as you go approach with X, releasing successive updates to gradually expand the OS's functionality — a slightly more realistic way to introduce such major technology.

However, with MS still ruling around 90 percent of the consumer market, you have to wonder how much impact Apple's carefully consi-dered push will have. This is another core issue: Probably the greatest impediment to convergence has been the melee of standards and formats created by the competition between the different IT companies. We would probably already be well converged if they would all just play together nicely.

Until then, you can at least show your support by checking out
the audio and video downloads now available. If you have a decent broadband hook up, the current offerings are fine on PC, or even mobile phone, and transfer well to portable media player. But why not also work on the content side of the equation? Get a cheap digital sound recorder or video camera and become a podcaster. What's the point of being converged if you have to watch reruns of “Survivor”?

Text: Kym Hutcheon

:: Online Articles

:: FEATURE

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:: TRAVEL

Way out west
Golden Week in Yamaguchi-ken

:: GETAWAY

Walking with history
Yamanobe-no-michi, Tenri

:: TECH

Convergence: come together
The future is wow!

:: UPDATE

Leaving on a jet plane
Are you ready to leave Japan?

:: PROFILE

DJ Cashmere: Sweet like candy
DJ who spins the town

:: Listings

:: CINEMA LISTINGS

Up to date cinema listings guide so you always know what's on, where and when!

:: ART

Best exhibitions + listings

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Parties not to miss + listings

:: Also in this month's mag

:: FOOD

Falafel Garden
Israeli Vegetarian Café, Kyoto

:: DRINK

Wanna get drunk?
Bar, Isn't It?, Umeda

:: SNAPSHOT

Six days in the Sahara
Alan Ryan on the world's toughest footrace

:: HEALTH

Art of living
Meditation course of the most wanted peace

:: CLUB INTERVIEW

Anthony Pappa
A man who made his name from Melbourne to Moscow

:: FESTIVAL

Best festivals + listings

:: READ

New releases and top ten paperback books

:: FILM

Reel reviews of the silver screen

:: NEWS

Domestic and international news