posted by Nicholas Blachford on Tue 9th Dec 2003 18:54 UTC

"TVs and PCs, Page 2"

Compatibility
The entire computer industry business model is based on the idea of constant upgrades, how is this going to mix with the consumer market where TV standards can be in use for decades?

A convergence box is going to be in use for many years, you can expect that even if software updates are made available they may never be applied, the standard at the beginning shall have to be set in stone.

Set Top Boxes are moving to the Java based MHP (Multimedia Home Platform) standard for TV interactivity but that won't compare to even current consoles for games never mind next generation ones. Again, we are still going to see PlayStations.

Tablet PCs and Home Servers
One idea is the idea of a Home Server and a bunch of tablet PCs. This is an idea I'm not exactly sold on. I'm sure they do have a use somewhere but probably only in the workplace, I can't see any use for them in the home whatsoever. What is the point of a bigger, heavier device when a PDA or even smartphone will do the same job - and I mean heavy, the Tablets I've seen will give you very sore arms if you hold them for any length of time. Also you could use a tablet as a terminal to the main box but do you hold it, mount it on something or what? I am not buying a TV I have to hold on my lap.

If you want to watch screens in different rooms it makes sense for them to have their own processing power, embedded CPUs (i.e. most PowerPCs) are cheap and powerful so adding computing power adds a great deal of functionality for little extra cost. Would you rather have multiple low cost boxes each doing their own job well for their respective user or one expensive super box which has to share resources?

Which Side Wins?
That all said I do think there will be convergence boxes made and sold simply because not everyone can afford multiple boxes. The question in this case becomes who is going to make them?

In the PDA Phone convergence there are two types of devices:

  • PDAs with Phone functionality
  • Phones with PDA functionality
  • It's pretty clear that the second category are winning the battle with SmartPhones now forecasted to outsell PDAs in 2004, but what about in the home?

    I fully expect to see TV manufacturers make valiant efforts to sell convergence boxes. I also fully expect to see PC makers do the same, so we'll see much the same theme appearing:

  • TVs with computing functionality
  • Computers with TV functionality
  • Arguably devices in both categories are already available but this is just the beginning, which category will win out in the home?

    Computer enthusiasts will likely assume that the computer centric device will win because that's what they will go after, after all they'll have higher performance, be more flexible and computer companies are more used to producing general purpose boxes. I expect the complete opposite: It shall be consumer companies, the likes of Sony, Phillips and JVC that will be the big winners.

    The reason for this is that PC compatibility is of no importance whatsoever on a TV, all they need to be compatible with is TV signals and DVDs. If you want to access the internet you need mail and a web browser but again you don't need a windows or PC hardware for that. If you want applications you can use a Java based engine and these days this means you can run all manner of different games and applications - as Phones and STBs are doing already.

    The counter to this is this they will be accused of providing a weak computing environment. This is not entirely true, most intensive tasks will be handled by dedicated hardware as is currently the case in STBs. The rest can be handled by the STB CPU core. No, they are not exactly speed demons but for the people likely to buy these boxes that's not going to matter.

    The bottom line is building a convergence box around the likes of a STB CPU and Linux (not the only option but it'll be the one most companies try) is going to produce a device at a much lower cost than any Computer derived device. Getting the entertainment side correct and easy to use is more important for consumers and that's where these shall be aimed, this is the area where TV companies are experts and PC companies not. For those reasons the consumer companies will win and the box will be based on STB, not PC technology.

    There will of course still be media PCs used in some living rooms, but probably only the living rooms of geeks. I don't see these sorts of systems having any mass market appeal.

    Conclusion
    The problems of doing everything from a single box will not be solved by technology alone. I'm not even sure the problems can be solved at all, in any case I find it questionable to even try. Trying to combine two seemingly similar but actually very different things will only result in a compromise.

    The difference will still exist in form factors and how we use them, we shall still use computers for computing, TVs for vegging out. I think there shall be some crossover in that we will use the devices for but ultimately the TV will still be a mainly passive entertainment device while the computer shall be an active, general purpose device.

    These devices will however be converged in that they shall have similar capabilities: You will be able to watch TV on your computer, you will be able to run programs on your TV.

    The devices, big or small, shall also share data and services - this is already beginning in that you can play other peoples music with Apple's iTunes. The technology to do this in an easy way exists already for other services but the big electronics firms have yet to agree on the standards to do it - I sniff an opportunity for the open source community. A truly open standard could prove very popular here.

    I do see room for some form of convergence box at the low end but it's not going to take over from the separate TV and Computer we have now. It's computing capabilities will be lacklustre compared to desktop systems but for the people it'll sell to that'll be fine.

    At this point in time the convergence is not going to work, in ten or twenty years things will be different and my conclusion may be very different.

    About the Authorm
    Nicholas Blachford is Director, Strategic Development at Genesi.
    Home of the Pegasos Multi-OS computer, MorphOS and the Pegasos Guardian.

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