News

Convergence Awaits — If It's Done Right

8/11/2002 8:00 PM Eastern

On two consecutive days last week, The New York Times
business section offered front-page articles that dissed convergence.

An upbeat profile of Viacom Inc.'s success emphasized that the conglomerate had eschewed multimedia ventures. It quoted mogul David Geffen, who characterized convergence as "the most expensive word in history."

A day later, an analysis of Push, Nevada
— ABC's upcoming quirky series, with interconnected Web and reality adjuncts — sermonized about the media's shifting sands.

The report concluded that interdisciplinary ventures are a "gamble that may be unthinkable in the current climate," after the turbulence at AOL Time Warner Inc., Bertelsmann A.G. and Vivendi Universal S.A.

And on the third day, Verizon Communications unveiled a convergence-like package of bundled DSL, mobile and local and long-distance services.

HELIX FACTOR

All of this came about as RealNetworks Inc. introduced Helix, a universal streaming video and audio software platform for delivering content to an array of devices such as set-top boxes and portable receivers, using a not-quite-Heinz-like 55 varieties of digital media.

This latest RealNetworks' media initiative is backed by a 29-company cabal that includes Sony Corp., TiVo Inc., Nokia, Hewlett-Packard Co. and nCUBE Corp. — an indicator of what convergence could entail.

So which do you believe? The comforting condemnation that convergence is dead, or the expectation that some of these new ventures will find a way to blend technologies and applications for delivery via the broadband superhighway?

According to the naysayers, convergence — which was to have been the center of broadband development — should be relegated to the backwaters of media disaster, on its way to oblivion. But convergence devotees continue to create cross-platform products – albeit sometimes shunning the tainted term.

For example, Verizon's bundling deal is a marketing package through which the telephone company seeks to squeeze more fees from its customers while establishing barriers for rivals.

Built around its monopoly phone service, Verizon's plan is seen as a shrewd move to head off cable telephony and find a marketing hook for its laggard Internet access services.

Predictably, to the phone monopolists, convergence lies in economics: the revenue value of captive customers. But is it really convergence, or just bandwidth packaging?

WHAT IS IT?

That cuts to the essence of the convergence conundrum. It's just a word. But it's a term that has been so misused and misunderstood as to become almost meaningless.

One of those Times
articles summarized convergence as an integration of content and distribution, although that viewpoint captures only one of its attributes, albeit a factor at the core of the recent mega-conglomerate alliances.

The stigma of convergence is not the term itself, but the vast unknown about what viewers will absorb and adopt — such as the convergent content that Push, Nevada
plans to offer.

As Linda Haugsted described in her recent coverage of the AFI Enhanced TV Workshop (Multichannel News, July 29), the total experience of the show incorporates PDA and Internet access with the series backstory, clues about the mystery and a real-world competition for prizes that involves the show's advertisers.

Convergence can get pretty complicated.

Other AFI convergent demonstrations involved the National Football League's Super Bowl game and National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing events, enhanced with mobile-phone feedback and play-along games. Were those merely cross-platform experiences that happened to integrate multiple design and delivery tools?

There are still more questions than there are answers about the route to convergence and the pit stops along the way.

For example, Helix is initially an infrastructure project built around the content creators' desire to produce a piece of content once for display via multiple outlets.

At its late-July premiere, RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser ran a Helix demonstration in which an MPEG-4 (Moving Picture Expert Group) video file, hosted from a universal server, was delivered simultaneously to a Compaq iPaq wireless device and three PCs. Each device used different media software: RealVideo, Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media or Apple Computer Corp.'s QuickTime. Presumably, a set-top box could also have been placed downstream.

But delivery options such as these represent just one angle for convergence. Of course, the service recognizes that consumers can choose how to receive and use content.

ARLEN'S DREAM

That leads to the unique convergence opportunities that have been at the center of my televisionary thoughts for nearly a decade: Combining "killer applications" into new types of content that can only exist on the interactive broadband platforms that are only just now in deployment.

Electronic funds transfer (as used for home banking and brokerage services) is such a killer application. So are networked video games.

Put them together, and you've got a new type of telegambling, in which gamers can play against each other with a little money riding on each play "to make it interesting."

Leaving aside sociopolitical barriers for the time being, the secure interactive-gaming transaction is the kind of converged application that can only exist in this digital set-up. Converged content — in the form of television commerce, edutainment or virtual reality — is also part of this dream.

The current, clumsy first steps are easily dismissed as awkward and irrelevant, as they are not immediate hits.

That's why it's easier to explain — and dismiss — the marketing packages and technology rollouts that are the necessary prelude to true convergence.

Convergence also relies on understandable, clear technology — platforms that attract consumer interest, rather than drive it away. In recent years, the forcible integration of connectivity and content, on top of awkward corporate deals, has generated predictably dismal results.

As the processes and applications are honed, we'll see a recrudescence of convergence. In other words, convergence will finally be about getting it all together.

Want to read more stories like this?
Get our Free Newsletter Here!
October