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The Network Observer: What Convergence?
Posted Mar 4, 2004 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

Visiting CES this year might easily have led you to believe that the "C" in CES really stood for Convergence and not Consumer. Booth after booth had displays on "convergence" products. Keynote speeches raved about "convergence." One could almost hear all 130,000 attendees chanting the mantra "convergence, convergence" as they sought this nirvana.

Convergence is the rare techie buzzword that has outlasted most of the technologies that underpin the buzz and continues to promise a prize—the intermingling of office and livingroom—that never fails to tantalize. But what does convergence mean, anyway?

To me, in 2004, Convergence is about four things:
1. Simplifying content formats
2. Finding ways to leverage the incredibly cheap PC hardware for consumer and prosumer use
3. Leveraging the PC's flexible software/hardware approach
4. Plugging it all together

Number four seems the real stumbling point at present: if the enabling devices of PC-CE convergence can't connect and communicate, convergence will remain a notion and nothing more.

In fact, none of our four requirements has a single, converged answer, so I predict we'll be hearing a lot more about the approaching convergence for some time to come. Carrying the format-war baggage of the computer industry into the livingroom is not the sort of approach that will get us invited back. Just take camera storage as a first example. Why are there six entirely different storage devices in digital cameras: CompactFlash, SmartMedia, MultiMediaCard (MMC), xD Picture, Sony's Memory Sticks, and Secure Digital (SD)? These stamp-sized wonders are hailed as the universal currency of convergent content. If so, where's the Euro of flash storage?

We need fewer content formats so we can share things easily. Years ago we had convergence. For still photos, you traded prints. If you wanted professional video, you dealt in 16 or 35MM reels.

Now, if I take a simple digital photo, I have it stored as a JPEG. But I still may need to compress or resize it once, twice, or even three times so I can send it to someone. (Based in part on what resolution I want the receiver to print out, or because of the limitation of his or her email connection speed.)

In higher-end cameras, I get two more formats for stills: RAW or TIFF. If I want video, I can choose MPEG, MOV, or AVI. If I move to prosumer camcorders, I have DV, HDV, DVCAM, DVC PRO, and PRO 50 (and let's not forget Digital Betacam). HDV is a nice convergence format in that it leverages near-ubiquitous MiniDV tape, but moving beyond that tape poses all kinds of non-convergent challenges.

If I want movies, previews, trailers, or other content from the PC/Mac side, it's MPEG-1, MPEG-2, or MPEG-4 if you're lucky. The proprietary Real, Quicktime, and Windows Media formats offer better scalability, and WMV opens the door to Hi-Def content for consumer devices—but just try converting between those.

Where's the convergence?

Let's take a look over in the component area. Great PCs can be had now for under $300. 40GB hard drives are under $40. So finally we have one bright spot at the show: the Lafayette MediaReady 4000 system. It combines a PC with a DVD player for access to on-demand content via the Internet, from an internal hard drive, or from a standard DVD disc. The best news is, unlike most MediaCenter PCs, it's a consumer device with a consumer price: $399!

More "convergence" of the "let's try to get along" sort would be welcome in the traditional multimedia component area. These have been single-purpose, fixed-version devices—like a Dolby Surround Sound decoder. If you wanted to upgrade from Dolby Pro Logic to Dolby Digital you were stuck buying new equipment.

What convergence could bring is a rackmount PC for surround sound that changed based on the software installed rather than some fixed-version hardware. So if you want to upgrade to Dolby Digital EX or to DTS, you'd simply have to install new software, not buy a whole new amp or decoder.

We move on to the plumbing side—how are we going to plug all this together? First, there are the "converged" choices for component connectors: 1394/Firewire, RJ-45 with 10/100/1000 Ethernet, the new High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), and S-Video; never mind SDI, SDTI (CSDI), and SDDI for camera and AV connectivity.

Or what about the home connections themselves? Will it be some type of wireless WiFi 802.11a/b/g? What about the CAT5 structured wiring now in 40% of new homes? What about the Multimedia Over Coax Alliance, which wants to use the old and familiar cable TV coax? Finally, don't confuse the HomePlug group (networking via residential internal powerlines) with HomePNA (networks via home phone lines).

And even if we should agree on a cable type, then there's the question of just what goes into that cable. Panasonic would love for you all to converge on their LifeStream initiative, which connects all Panasonic devices into one virtual harmony. On the other hand, Mitsubishi wants you to enjoy NetCommand as your convergence method. Finally, Microsoft wants you to have a PC running its XP MediaCenter Edition to connect everything together.

Oh, and by the way, don't confuse any of these with NetStream's DigiLinx or Yamaha's MusicCast systems, which are only for home audio networks and do nothing with video.

Isn't convergence wonderful?

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