posted by Nicholas Blachford on Tue 9th Dec 2003 18:54 UTC
IconAt Genesi we do more than just alternative computers, we also have interests in the field of Digital Media and Digital Television, you'll see products targeted to these segments arriving in the future. Most people appear to think that the future of Digital Media is convergence, that it is inevitable that TVs and Computers are going to converge and become a single device. Some people however think that this will not happen, they may have good reason for thinking so.

Like it or not, Convergence is Happening
It is clear that convergence is happening, PCs pick up capabilities from everywhere, if you want a PC which does everything there are many suppliers who will happily supply you with a PC complete with DVD player, TV card, Radio tuner and all sorts of other multimedia goodies, Microsoft even has a version of Windows expressly for running these machines.

On the other hand TV seems to be moving in the same direction, you can play games and get internet access complete with web and e-mail via the more advanced Set Top Boxes / TVs which themselves are based on Java. In some hotels you can even find TVs with built in game consoles and a selection of games.

It seems obvious that these two boxes are going to meet. After all that's what most devices seem to end up doing, isn't it?

When Convergence Works
A PDA is really nothing other than a portable computer. Mobile phones have been edging towards PDAs for a long time gaining functionality and power. They are now quite naturally in the process of converging. Convergence has been so successful in this sector in fact that if you count so called "SmartPhones" alongside PDAs it is now Nokia and Sony-Ericsson models that are topping the sales charts, not Palm or HP.

Both phones and PDAs are pocket devices and their functionality has long overlapped. Their User Interfaces may be different but putting both devices into one doesn't compromise one or the other a great deal, the convergence in the case of Phones and PDAs is a natural one which will likely leave the standalone PDA as an historical oddity.

Barriers in the home
The convergence of the TV and Computer into a single device is not as simple as the Phone and PDA. There are a number of issues to consider and simply putting a lot of technology into a box is not likely to address them.

There are key differences between TVs and Computers. We use them in different ways, we expect different things of them:

Computer

  • Using a Computer is a single person experience
  • The user sits close to the screen
  • Screens are high resolution / quality
  • Screens typically display static images for long periods
  • A Computer is active, you control it
  • There is constant interaction via a keyboard / mouse
  • Computers are constantly upgraded and changing
  • If a Computer crashes we do nothing because we expect it
  • Television

  • Any number of people can watch the same TV
  • Used sitting some distance away from it
  • A TV screen is larger but lower resolution / quality
  • TVs display constantly moving images
  • The TV is passive, to "use" a TV you sit and do nothing
  • There is little or no interaction, via a remote control
  • A TV sits there unchanged for years or even decades, an upgrade means buying a new one
  • If a TV "crashes" it goes back to the shop for a replacement*

  • *When they allow this for software, programmers will get rich again.

    Not all of these problems are insurmountable, indeed some of these problems seem to be working themselves out:

  • With the advent of HDTV the two screen types are merging, you can now get large, high quality, high resolution screens, especially in the US.
  • For increased interaction with a TV you need to control a pointer, this could be solved with a trackball or track pad fitted to the Remote control.
  • You can already get wireless keyboards for use with some Set Top Boxes.
  • The Schizophrenic Box
    You could build a box which does all the above, building it is ultimately a purely technological problem. The result would be a box which would have different "personalities" depending on it's use. It could even be used in both modes simultaneously with both the Computer and TV screens acting like terminals. There are going to be some pretty difficult problems to solve before you can build it though:

    Responsiveness
    If the box has a Personal Video Recorder (PVR) function then it absolutely has to keep working. It can't pause, it can't skip frames, it must keep working irrespective of what else the box is doing. Playing a game on a box with a PVR task running will at best lead to a compromised game.

    Given software's tendency to expand to use all the power and space it is given, any multi-personality box is going to end up fighting itself for resources. You could of course just settle for a fixed level of quality, you get a working PVR but cutting edge games are pretty much out. Convergence or not, we are still going to see PlayStations.

    Reliability
    What happens if you are recording a TV program at the same time as running an application which fails and causes a system failure? This will of course happen at the *exact* time you don't want it to (Ball player scores, Girl gets undressed, both) and you'll lose at least 30 seconds worth of program, probably several minutes. I can imagine some of these boxes will go out the Window...

    Convergence requires a computing device with a TV's level of reliability - even under the heaviest of loads, instability and crashes are not options. The OS quite simply has to be bomb proof - and I don't know of *any* desktop system which can fit that role.

    Noise
    TVs and associated equipment do not as a general rule make much noise, computers on the other hand have always made some noise and are getting louder. I have a good quality stereo system, I want to hear it, not a computer's fan. You can get low noise fans but they not only wear out eventually and put the price up - but in the consumer arena putting the price up is a big no.

    Where do you put it?
    The box will likely transmit data via wireless links but this would not work for high resolution displays other than broadcast material, it will not work for games with PC resolution graphics. Will the box be below the TV screen or the Computer screen?

    Sharing
    What happens if I want to play a game while someone else wants to watch a DVD? A second drive will fix that but put the cost up. Now throw in a simultaneous PVR task and watch the fun as the next level loads.

    Table of contents
    1. "TVs and PCs, Page 1"
    2. "TVs and PCs, Page 2"
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