The digital divide

As we run headlong into a world where we can receive personalized entertainment on a variety of devices, from HD PVRs to mobile phones, are we in danger of creating a digital divide?

Recently I met a friend, a well-respected former member of the broadcast manufacturing industry, and we got to talking about consumer electronic equipment. He had just purchased a PVR, which has an ongoing software problem, and a wireless Internet contract, which was also suffering from hiccups. We agreed that much of the consumer equipment available today is less than satisfactory.

Suppose a modern Rip van Winkle fell asleep in 1950 and awoke today. He could still drive a car, even though in the intervening years, the vehicle has acquired digital engine management, computer-controlled air conditioning, a digital surround sound system, a security system and GPS navigation. But what would he make of the stacks of set-top boxes on the TV and of the multimedia phone?

You don't have to be Rip van Winkle to have problems with modern consumer electronics. Whereas the automobile industry has used electronics to add new features and also to improve performance and reliability, home electronics manufacturers seem to go for the lowest common denominator in terms of usability and software quality.

Most of the readers of Broadcast Engineering would consider themselves to have a higher level of knowledge of television and computers than the average consumer. Now I am intolerant of software that crashes or is not intuitive to operate, but I know what is possible if equipment is properly designed and tested.

To return to our conversation, we wondered how the elderly cope with the advances in home entertainment. Will we reach the point where TV is too complex for them to operate, let alone keep the systems operating? Can they be expected to keep their TV operating using the less than satisfactory help from offshore call centers?

Our Rip van Winkle from 1950 had a TV that was simple to operate, and the phone even more so. For the elderly, or those with poor eyesight, operating a modern phone or home entertainment system can be challenging. As the publishing end of the media industry, broadcasters should be ensuring that multichannel, multiplatform content delivery systems are usable by all the public, not just young people raised on computer games and PCs. We are in danger of creating a divide between those who operate and enjoy modern consumer technology to the full and those who hanker for the past, before the digital switchover, when they could enjoy television.

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