Don't Get Me Started: Converging on Success

As digital television emerges as the home-entertainment medium of the new century, the convergence of audio/video broadcasting and the Internet is inevitable. After all, DTVs are nothing more than computers dedicated to A/V tasks; it seems a simple matter to include telecommunications capabilities as well. This convergence is made even easier with the increasing use of broadband cable modems, which access the Internet via the same infrastructure that brings television to roughly two-thirds of American homes.

Of course, television and the Internet serve two very different functions, which leads many to wonder how they can possibly converge. Television is a one-way entertainment medium, allowing users to do nothing more than select from a finite—albeit growing—set of preprogrammed material on a predetermined schedule (TiVo and its ilk notwithstanding). The quality of the image and sound is relatively good and getting much better in the digital age.

By contrast, the Internet is an interactive research tool, providing users with whatever information they want whenever they want it. The Internet also lets users communicate via e-mail, chat rooms, even real-time telephony (aka Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP). However, its ability to deliver real-time A/V entertainment is limited by bandwidth restrictions and the asynchronous, packetized nature of the network.

In my view, it is precisely these differences that make convergence so appealing. The two paradigms offer complementary services that should all be available on the same screen; in fact, they should be available on all screens in the home. Television programs and advertisers already have associated Web sites; you should be able to click on an icon while watching TV, which would pause the program and open the corresponding site to get more information.

Many have tried to implement this idea, but so far, none have succeeded in the mass market. Among the early attempts were Microsoft's WebTV and Thomson's PC Theatre, which were both spectacular flops. (Interestingly, the two companies have since collaborated on the successor to WebTV, called MSN TV 2, which is based on Thomson's IP1000 hardware platform, developed in conjunction with Intel.) Then there's the recent spate of Media Center PCs running Windows Media Center Edition; everyone and his brother seems to be offering some variation of these products.

Why have convergence products been so unsuccessful up to now? In the case of WebTV and its kind, I believe it's because they are severely limited in capability for the sake of reliability and ease of use. For example, the WebTV box had no mass storage, making it impossible to save incoming e-mail and other files retrieved from the Net; you could only look at them on the screen. (The original WebTV didn't even have a printer port, although this was added in later versions.) This also meant you couldn't save outgoing e-mail messages for later transmission. The MSN TV 2 includes 64MB of flash (non-volatile) memory, which is used to store e-mails and such, but that will fill up in a hurry if you receive a few big attachments.

On the other side of the coin, Media Center PCs are complete Windows computers, which have their own set of problems. For one thing, many people are justifiably intimidated by computers. The learning curve is often steep, and mysterious glitches often appear, defying explanation or easy solution. And despite dramatic price reductions in recent years, most computers are still relatively expensive for the mass market.

For convergence products to succeed, they must be very inexpensive, full-function computers that are impervious to failure and as easy to set up and operate as a TV. For example, eMachines offers a complete Windows computer for around $400 (including monitor, CD-RW/DVD drive, 56K modem, and Ethernet). Granted, this is a Windows machine, so it probably isn't bulletproof or simple to set up and use. However, it demonstrates that the price of a home computer can approach that of other household appliances.

As far as ease of setup and use is concerned, I was interested to hear dealers talk about Media Center PCs at the recent Runco retreat in Mexico (see related news story). Most said that these devices were much more trouble than they were worth, generating many more customer-support calls than other types of components. On the other hand, some good progress has been made with recent Windows Media Center "shells" that insulate the user from Windows itself. This is critical if consumers are to broadly accept Media Center PCs as part of a home theater system.

The ideal convergence product would be a computer that doesn't look or behave like a computer; rather, it would look, connect, and operate like other A/V devices. For example, I was quite impressed with what I saw of Hewlett Packard's Digital Entertainment Center at the Home Entertainment show last month (see related news story). It includes a very nice software shell, but it's not inexpensive—the three models range from $1500 to $2600. Still, I think HP has a shot at success with this product, and I look forward to reviewing it as soon as it's available.

The key to the ultimate success of such a product is its software and user interface (not to mention its price and reliability). The software must be completely transparent and intuitive, and the user interface should include a wireless keyboard and a separate "air mouse" remote with which to activate onscreen icons and control the TV. (I saw a very interesting air mouse at the Home Entertainment show: the Media Center Remote from Gyration, which is now part of Thomson.) The integration of television and Internet access must be tight and seamless, allowing the user to easily call up Web pages from within a TV program, swap images between different windows, etc.

I don't think it's particularly important to have word processing, spreadsheets, or other business applications available on the TV screen; these are activities best left to the home office. But e-mail, Web browsing, and online gaming could easily become family activities in the home theater, complementing and enriching the TV experience without trying to replace it.