Experts and analysts across a broad spectrum of industries have been exploring the convergence of television, computing and telecommunications for several decades. One could even say that this author has built something of a career around the subject, helping to facilitate the transition in the late '80s and '90s to computer-based tools for audio and video production.

Back in 1992, I helped the SMPTE put together a preconference session for the 26th Annual SMPTE Advanced Television and Electronic Imaging Conference in San Francisco. The conference theme was “Collision or Convergence - Digital Video/Audio, Computers and Telecommunications.” The preconference session involved presentations and panel sessions from television and computer industry executives who, as expected, locked horns in territorial turf wars. A left brain/right brain audience looked on and interacted with the experts who were trying to lead and/or impede the transition to a new infrastructure for digital media creation and distribution.

On one side of the center aisle were seasoned video industry veterans who believed that no one outside their industry understood the complex issues involved with video content creation. While computers were taking over prepress and graphics production, and beginning to affect audio production, video was simply too demanding for computers. In their minds, real-time dedicated video production gear would never be replaced by software applications running on general purpose computer platforms.

On the other side of the aisle, a new generation of Silicon Valley whiz kids and would-be content creators saw a different world. For them, video and audio were just big data files to be manipulated with software, shared across local and wide area networks and distributed in new ways — and this was before the then embryonic Internet gave birth to the World Wide Web!


Did I mention that the seasoned video types also proclaimed that no one would want to watch TV on a computer? Needless to say, the collision that took place at the 1992 SMPTE conference was predictable. Video industry leaders had no desire to become the next meal for the rapidly growing computer industry. PCs belonged at the office, or perhaps the den, but the family room was sacred turf.

PCs were lean-forward, interactive devices. TVs were lean-back, passive entertainment devices. Consumers would never settle for the postage-stamp-sized videos the PC kids were playing with. Even more important, the video industry was embarking on a digital transition of its own. It wanted to bring the wonders of high-definition television to the family room.

Three years later, I returned to another SMPTE conference in San Francisco and demonstrated a Media 100 nonlinear editing system, playing back online-quality SD video. This was from the same computer I was using for my PowerPoint presentation. The video industry experts were wrong. So are those who claim today that the Internet will collapse under the strain of downloading video content by a new generation of consumers who want their media, anywhere, anytime, on any screen.

The movers and shakers in the professional video production equipment industry were not alone in their concern about the gathering momentum of the PC industry and the parallel development of the Internet. The consumer electronics industry and the television broadcasters who supplied the content for the TV in the family room had even more to be concerned about. They were trying to develop a new standard to deliver HDTV to the masses when the computer industry stuck its nose under the tent. The computer people suggested that digital television should be designed to promote convergence with the personal computer and technologies being developed for sharing digital media files via high-speed networks.

MIT and Apple lobbied the FCC to consider the potential for convergence of PCs and TVs. FCC chairman Al Sikes instructed the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service (ACATS) to evaluate all of the proposed (H)DTV systems on their ability to interoperate with personal computers. ACATS was also asked to evaluate the proposals as to their scalability and extensibility for future applications that would span devices from the big screen in the family room to the PC in the den to what has become the media-enabled smartphone.

As a participant in the ACATS process, I can now look back and say with a fair degree of accuracy that the computer industry overtures were viewed as a major threat by broadcasters and the CE industry. The video industry used the knowledge imparted by the computer industry to create barriers to competition — many of which still make convergence of TV, computing and telecommunications (the Web and wireless) a goal rather than a reality.

Embracing convergence?

Several recent Download columns have focused on issues related to the convergence of television with the big screen in the family room and the Web as an important source of content in the family room. In March, the Frame Grab chart that accompanies this column illustrated the rapid growth of downloading video from the Internet. In 2007, 45 percent of U.S. homes reported downloading video from the Internet at least once each week. For 2008, that number will grow to 61 percent, with 86 percent downloading video at least once each month.

In my March column, “Decoupling,” I examined the growth in popularity of 1080p display technology and the roles that Blu-ray DVD and Internet downloads may have in the future. (See “Web links” on page 18.) Hollywood and the consumer electronics industry are looking to Blu-ray to deliver HD movies to those 1080p displays and to connect to the Internet to extend the experience around the content on the disc. They are also looking at a complex digital rights management (DRM) regime to keep HD versions of movies from flowing freely on the Internet.

The most important takeaway from that column, in my humble opinion, is that 1080p displays fully enable the convergence of TV and the Web. These high-resolution displays are equally adept at displaying high-quality HDTV content for entertainment, and for Web-based applications aimed at the family room, such as Apple's new movie rental service for Apple TV, using the iTunes portal for buying music, TV shows and movies, as well as renting movies. Apple TV does not have any outputs for an analog TV. It requires a progressive display with analog component or HDMI inputs.

Big screen displays are also in demand for the latest generation of game consoles like Sony's PlayStation 3, which can play Blu-ray movies, and Microsoft's Xbox 360, which can download movies from the Web. And Sony is now selling an Internet connection module for its Bravia TVs.

In my January column, “Change is imminent,” I examined the challenges that the TV industry is facing as traditional TV audiences fragment in 100 directions. (See “Web links.”) Consumers now have many options for information and entertainment, and many technologies to assist in the selection of content and the venue in which it is consumed. TV viewers are no longer tied to the old appointment TV model where the family sat down for an evening of TV viewing. DVRs make it possible to watch a TV program on your schedule. And missed episodes of favorite shows can now be downloaded and viewed on a PC, a TV or a portable media player.

The TV networks are moving considerable resources to the creation of a Web-based distribution system with a variety of business models:

  • sales of TV shows for download without commercials;
  • free downloads with commercials that cannot be skipped; and
  • the linking of Web search capabilities with vast libraries of content that have been produced in recent decades.

At the same time, broadcasters are increasingly aware that the ability to deliver bits to things that move may be as important as serving fixed TVs in the family room, especially in a world where more than 85 percent of U.S. homes subscribe to a multichannel TV service.

Surfing the Internet is no longer limited to the PC in the den. Notebook PCs are the 21st century portable information appliances. Users expect them to hookup to wireless networks, play DVD movies and downloaded TV content, and perhaps soon, to pull in TV programming from the telcos or TV broadcasters who dedicate part of their spectrum to serving mobile and handheld devices.

Now some industry experts are saying that smartphones may become the next major computing platform. These devices can surf the Web, play music and videos, and talk to other devices. One can easily imagine a device like Apple's iPhone becoming a game player in its own right, a game controller for multiplayer games on the big screen TV, and a Web surfing remote for the big screen TV.

While Apple continues to help transform the PC industry with new and innovative devices, the company's ability to create an entire ecosystem around these devices is the real story. A song, TV show or movie purchased or rented from the iTunes store can now be enjoyed on the big screen TV in the family room via Apple TV, on the PC in the den, on a notebook computer and on an iPod.

The bottom line

In all of this, economics is a major factor. The monthly bills for cable TV, broadband and wired telephones, wireless telephones, and the packaged media we buy can easily approach several hundred dollars each month. While industry experts have been arguing about who's going to do what to whom, consumers have been growing accustomed to paying for their media fixes. What the iTunes store has proven is that consumers will pay for content if it is fairly priced and easy to access.

It took less than a decade for computer-based tools to replace traditional video production gear for non-real-time content creation. These computer-based tools have scaled from SD to HD and now support the development of versions of TV content for multiple platforms.

Hoping that the Internet will be crushed under the weight of video downloading is not a good bet. The IT industry looks at challenges like this as new business opportunities, not barriers to competition.

The convergence pie is huge. The question to be answered is how it will be divided, and by whom?

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs.

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