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Are We There Yet?

by Michael Nygard, February 22, 2000

Digital Divergence

Some words just make me cringe. It even happens the first time I hear some of them. "Digital divide", for example, causes immediate, excruciating teeth-grinding. As every politician knows, however, the power of a good catchphrase is that it lingers on - whether or not it means anything.

"Digital convergence" is a knuckle-biter of a phrase that has lingered on for nearly a decade now, and I hope to lay it to rest. (By the way, if you can tell me where the phrase "digital convergence" first came from, please post a comment. I suspect it was in Wired, if that helps narrow it down.) Just in case you've been living in a cave for the past decade, "digital convergence" refers to the idea that the desktop PC is going to move into the living room. The PC and the TV will eventually blur into each other and we'll have one box that does information, games, movies, music, email...everything. Teletubbies to TurboTax. Amazon to Xena. 57 million channels. One big ball of sweet, eyeball-grabbing wax. (Plentiful pundits trying to describe this technotopian vision gave us awful neologisms like infotainment and edumation, in an attempt to etymologically link the future to the present.) One box ought to be able to handle it all. After all, at some level, it's all just bits on a wire.

The predictors of digital convergence were half right. All media can be reduced to bits on a wire. In fact, digital media convergence has happened already. Code and data, music and movies are all digital. Squealing guitars, roaring car chases, haunting melodies, even Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute. All the eros and pathos are rendered into cool ones and zeros, indistinguishable from stock quotes and the latest hundred-dollar cookie recipe. (As a matter of fact, there are a couple of four-letter industry associations that seem to have a bit of a problem with this right now.)

But, the "digital convergence" crowd was also half wrong. We have not seen the PC and the TV merge into one device. Quite the opposite, in fact. TVs have gotten much, much better at being TVs, PCs have gotten immensely better at being PCs, and neither one has made what you would call huge strides into the other's territory.So what happened?

Before I get to that, please allow me a small digression. Around 3,500,000,000 years ago, the first photosynthetic organisms appeared. Before that, light was irrelevant. Afterwards, it became a plentiful resource. The various forms of photosynthetic life bifurcated and diversified to occupy all possible ways of using that resource, like a vast optimizer running in parallel over billions of years and across every ecological niche. This common pattern appears many times throughout biologic history. The typical response to a plentiful environment is explosive diversification of form and functions.

So, in an environment where digital media content is the plentiful resource, would we expect consumers of that data to converge onto one form? Obviously, with the advantage of hindsight, we would not. Rather, we would expect the consumers of the data to diversify into lots of new forms capable of using that resource in every possible way. Let's see...REX, PDA, cell-phone minibrowser, Itsy, kiosks, palmtops, notebooks, laptops, desktops, Music Clip, Rio, TiVo, Replay... the theory seems to hold. Digital devices have been proliferating recently. It seems like they have even created new categories of devices in the last year or two, like "portable MP3 player", "personal video recorder", and "internet appliance", to name a few.

The real digital convergence has already happened, and it happened to the content. The convergence of content started this Cambrian explosion of devices. Make no mistake, the diversification has just begun. Just as we cannot extrapolate a dolphin from the existence of bacteria, we cannot yet know all the forms that our digital devices will ultimately reach. Some forms will succeed, some will fail. Remember, in its day, the trilobite kicked ass.

About The Author: Michael is Chief Scientist of Javelin Technology, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm. His experience runs the gamut, covering scientific, military, financial, educational, banking, and manufacturing applications. Michael is focusing on true integration of wireless devices in the enterprise. He can be reached at michael@wirelessdevnet.com.

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