Convergence Never Happened… What Did?

During Apple’s Q2 2012 Conference Call, Apple disclosed that it had once again done far better than most industry analysts expected. Apple’s stock soared in after hours trading climbing from a closing point of $560 to over $600 per share, before 02:30PM PST.

During the conference call Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, said something that caught my attention. “…Anything can be forced to converge… You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the userTo ‘converge’ iPad and MacBook Air, would lead to too many tradeoffs. We’re not going there. We’ll do both; making each the best they can be…”

Mr. Cook’s statements struck me as being very Steve Jobs in nature, causing me to believe he may be even better programmed by Jobs than I had previously suspected. The statement also reminded me of a period, not too many years ago, when the technology industry was extremely excited about “convergence.

The word was used, overused, abused, and misused ad nauseam. Sort of the way “sustainable” or “racism” is used today. If the word had any actual meaning, it was lost in broad and continuous misapplication. Ask any two marketing professionals what convergence meant, and you’d get two very different explanations. Everything from the decline of “old media” and the emergence of “new media,” to the merging of computers and television. Some old timers still go on about the quaint and obscure idea of “Interactive Television and convergence.” Ask any two technologists about convergence and you’d likely have gotten a frown, a snicker, or a deep sigh.

Arstechnica.com states: “Convergence refers to a trend where some technologies having distinct functionalities evolve to technologies that overlap, i.e. multiple products come together to form one product, with the advantages each initial component.

Huh?

Wikipedia.com states: “Technological convergence is the tendency for different technological systems to evolve toward performing similar tasks. Convergence can refer to previously separate technologies such as voice (and telephony features), data (and productivity applications), and video that now share resources and interact with each other synergistically.

Hmmm…

I have one old computer science professor that says, “Convergence occurs when you mix different types of media on the same cable. Data, voice, and video.”  When I point out that it’s all just bits as far as the cable is concerned, he gets a dazed look.

Technology professionals understand that talking about television merging with computers is like talking about the horse merging with the automobile, vinyl records merging with CDs, or toasters merging with refrigerators. It seldom makes sense. It seldom makes things better. You can add a web browser to a cable set-top box, but it doesn’t improve the experience of television, nor does it make the set-top box a better computer.

Instead of convergence, what drives extreme change is that functionality previously handled by one technology is shifted to and absorbed by a newer more powerful, more flexible technology. The phrase that best fits is revolution. The new technology is better, so much so that there is actually divergence from the old technology and migration to the new technology, not convergence.

Consider the smartphone. Prior to the advent of the iPhone there were a smattering of devices called smartphones. These were cellphones with a few extra abilities typically so useless and difficult to master that the abilities went unused. We were seriously thrilled if we could keep our contacts and calendars in sync. Then Apple introduced the iPhone, and revolutionized the smartphone category.

“Smartphone” is an unfortunate name because it does a poor job of describing exactly what the iPhone (and copycat products) are. In fact they are small always on, always connected computers that happen to have a telephone incorporated. Some people will argue that this is an example of convergence. In reality the computer, a more powerful, more flexible technology than the mobile phone, has absorbed the telephony function.

The iPhone introduction was a black swan event. It was so much of a revolution that companies previously at the top of the mobile device category have since found themselves pushed into financial instability and technological irrelevance by the iPhone, for example Nokia and RIM/Blackberry. Other companies completely revised product and service directions in response to the iPhone, for example Google and Microsoft.

Since those early days of “convergence euphoria” very little convergence has happened at all. What has happened is the explosive growth of the Internet and personal computers, especially where different forms of media creation and consumption are concerned.

Some people like to talk about “new media” vs. “old media.” This actually makes no more sense than convergence. There is no new media vs. old media. Moving images are still moving images. Audio is still audio. Text is still text. What has changed is how that content is generated and deployed. When we talk about ongoing radical changes in content delivery, we are not talking about technology mergers, we are talking about the overthrow of conventional methodologies. AKA, revolution.

You will sometimes hear the phrase “democratization” used in relation to technology changes. Revolutionary technology didn’t just change the methods of media creation and consumption, it also greatly widened the door of who can create and consume media. Note that “who,” in this case, encompasses where, how and why. For example, Joe the mechanic can make a video about his Porsche expertise, edit it, and upload it to Youtube, where it can be seen by millions, all from his garage, using his iPhone. The changes that allow Joe to do this are not the result of convergence, they are the result of emergence. As new, more powerful, more flexible technologies emerge, barriers are broken and new users of those technologies emerge as well.

Back in the day when I would groan about the word “convergence” I would insist that there is one technology that is going to usurp all the others. If you take a look at all the existing forms of content delivery, they are all currently shifting to a single powerful technology, namely The Internet.

Television, radio, movies, telecommunications, libraries, magazines, and books are all moving to what we now collectively refer to as “the cloud.” (While there are very specific and technical definitions for what constitutes “a cloud,” we can forget enforcing them. The word is part of the mainstream vernacular now. It will never return to a precise meaning.)

As an example of revolution vs. convergence, consider the music industry. The music industry has all but been obliterated and re-conceived due to the Internet. Who still actually purchase sCDs?  When is the last time you were in a record store? What is a record label? Does anyone care? Who actually listens to top 40 radio anymore? Most of the younger people who purchase music buy it online, if they buy it at all, and they are increasingly buying it directly from the artists online, eliminating the bloated record label infrastructure of the 20th century.

They are extracting music from YouTube videos. They discover new music via friends and social media. Some use services like Pandora, Spotify, and Soundcloud.  Sure there are purists, and one can easily argue that nothing looks or sounds as good as a well made turntable, but that’s a very small slice of the music buying public.

Television is also being revolutionized by the Internet. In response, much of the television industry is clinging to an archaic business model, literally refusing to innovate, and instead attempting to shield their largely mediocre content from the choice dictated world of The Internet.

Well good luck with that. Welcome to the always on, always connected era. If you restrict your content to a specific hour on a specific night, viewable only via pay for TV providers, guess what? Fewer and fewer people will see it. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. (Sorry, couldn’t resist R.I.P Gill Scott Herron.)

It is well documented that children are now growing up without television. At least television as it has been known. They watch Youtube, Vimeo, all sorts of video services, including conventional television content made available on the Internet. They play games, they even, (gasp!) read. The functions previously provided by broadcast television are being replaced by the Internet. Kids can tell you where to find content, whether it’s on HULU, NetFLIX, iTUNES or Youtube, but if you ask them on which television network to find “A Person of Interest” for example, they have no idea, if they even know the program exists. Television networks are as relevant to kids as music labels.

Furthering the shift even more, HULU, NetFLIX, and Youtube as well as many others are starting to experiment with original programming. New business models are being experimented with. I often wonder why CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX, etc. haven’t created iCBS, iABC, iNBC, and iFOX? Why are they not experimenting with original content for the Internet? Why are they not making it very simple to find all of their content online for viewing? Instead we are presented with half hearted efforts.

Presumably due to byzantine licensing requirements, utterly irrational conditions like being able to watch content on my computer, but not on my iPad sitting right next to it exist. Instead of making all content available, their various websites typically offer a prosaic brochure of their banal programming.  Is it because they have the same old washed up over paid executives running the networks? Come on TV people, evolve! Bang the rocks together!

A growing number of people are doing what is known as “cutting the cable.” I.e. they are dumping their pay TV services and opting for the Internet only. These are not just young people, and not just people trying to save money. I recently dumped my pay TV service  after accepting that I was paying for a service that was off most of the time.

I was paying approximately $150 per month for cable television and Internet service. When I cut out the television portion, I was able to use the difference to boost my in home Internet service to 50Mb/s down and get a 4G/LTE Personal Hotspot with 5GB/month data cap. So by getting rid of hundreds of channels of crap, I can afford among the fastest Internet speeds available in The United States both at home and while mobile. My consumption of media has completely shifted to new technologies, most notably The Internet. For a growing number of us, television is dead, long live the Internet.

Having the Internet much more suits my preferences and lifestyle. I like science fiction, science documentaries, and spy thrillers, that sort of thing. I despise reality TV, and I have no interest whatsoever in professional wrestling. Why pay for all that bilge? Instead I watch what I want, when I want, where I want, and how I want. This is paradigm shift. This is the mindset kids are now growing up with. The idea of gathering in the living room to watch TV at a certain time is fading.

If that isn’t enough to rock the TV Industry, a growing number of people are attaching ipTV boxes to their televisions, such as ROKU and AppleTV. These devices allow you to watch content from services such as NetfFlix or Hulu on your large flat screen TV. In addition, the functionality offered by ipTV boxes will be built directly into most new televisions. It’s already started. Many models of televisions from numerous manufacturers have built in ipTV capabilities, and everyone is waiting with baited breath for Apple’s entry into this market. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new product from some vendor that only received content from the Internet. I.e. no TV receiver or coax connection. Just an HD monitor with HDMI inputs.

It’s not just music and TV. Clearly other forms of conventional content distribution such as newspapers, magazines, books, movies, and spoken word are also shifting to the Internet, and again, there is no convergence, no “new media” just a shift to the Internet.

If there is a new media form on the Internet, it is most likely social media. The Internet is now the chief medium that people from all over the world use to communicate on a daily basis. Through social media, we actually do, “keep in touch.”

Critics of social media say that it is no replacement for true human contact, and that is absolutely true, but social media doesn’t attempt to do that. What social media does is maintain some form of contact where if it did not exist, there would be none.

With FaceBook I see a constant stream of information from old friends that I’d lost contact with simply because of the way life works. I know that one has become an insanely great photographer, especially of horses. Others have started businesses and families. One has become a beekeeper and sells her own honey. No, this is no substitute for sitting down and having a drink with these people, but it’s better than nothing, which is what life normally leaves you with. So while some scoff, I submit the Internet is bringing us closer, actually keeping us connected.

I’m self employed. I live and work out of a loft in Downtown Los Angeles. On most days my commute is from bed to the sink to make coffee, and to my desk. It is possible for me to go weeks without seeing anyone I actually know. Most of my communications with  friends, associates, and clients are electronic. Were it not for the Internet, my lifestyle would not be possible. One of the things I miss however, is work chatter.

Twitter has taken the place of the proverbial water cooler for me. While I keep track of friends with Facebook, I monitor ideas with Twitter and for that matter Google+. Using Twitter and Google+, I follow people I wish I knew. I monitor the fleeting thoughts and notifications of people I consider to be important to my career and my view of the world. I follow people I find interesting. Twitter is the ultimate water cooler, and actually the ultimate news aggregator.

Social media isn’t completely new. There were of course the bulletin board systems, chat rooms, and message boards of the past, but they never reached the level of general acceptance that systems such as Twitter, FaceBook, Pinterest, Tumblr, or Instagram have. People are using these new systems not just as a new form of telecommunications, but as a method of documenting and sharing their daily lives.

Back to Apple.

If you’ve followed our favorite tech company over the years, you might’ve noticed something. Apple tends to periodically create technology revolutions. When they approach a product, they don’t look for someway to mash technologies together, or converge them. They look at the existing technology and determine that there is room for something newer, more powerful, and more flexible.

Apple’s run to the top of their game started with the introduction of the iPod. With the iPod Apple leveraged a new technology for music distribution. iTunes.

Recognizing that demand for mobile access to the “real” Internet with a full blown hand held computer was rising, brought about the iPhone.

Their most recent revolution, the iPad, is not a result of convergence, but a desire to create a device that allows people to do most of the daily things they do on the Internet in a better way than conventional computers previously allowed.

Each of these new technologies offered a newer, more powerful, more flexible way to use the Internet. This is one reason to believe that the next new innovation from Apple will be the much rumored Apple Television. In order for a new television to succeed, it’s going to have to provide an advanced and highly compelling new human interface as well as overcome the stagnant television industry business models discussed earlier. This new television is going to have to be more powerful and flexible, leverage the heck out of the Internet, and absorb the functions previously handled by conventional televisions. It will likely be a computer first, but offer a paradigm shift for gathering content from around the Internet. I’m betting it will be smart enough to simply say, “Record Entire Season of Person of Interest” to and it will do it, without you worrying about what network it’s on. The only question that remains is will CBS be smart enough to allow it to do so?

3 responses to “Convergence Never Happened… What Did?

    • That’s good to know. Thing is, I’d be very happy to pay for programs I like. I’d happily pay for a full season of POI on iTunes. I could get it through other means but wouldn’t they rather I pay?

      • You can pay, but you do so after many other people do.

        1. Free TV – Sent out over the air where advertisers pay. Cable cos. kick in a little money for the right to carry the over the air signals.

        2. Hulu – For some networks it’s available the next day on Hulu, where advertisers and/or subscribers pay. In our case it’s cbs.com, as we don’t participate in Hulu.

        3. iTunes (and it’s variants) – You can buy the show here, but this is where it gets complicated, as part of the motivation on the networks part is to enable you to be “caught up” so that you’ll watch the show via #1.

        4. Cable Syndication – Sold to a cable channel, which sells advertising and charges subscription fees.

        5. Station Syndication – Sold to stations, which sell ads against it.

        6. Netflix – Streaming rights.

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