Television and Computer Convergence: Not when but if

At 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.

    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.

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