Digital Convergence

The Following was written in Autumn 2003

Let’s get something clear straight away: I am a technophile. I always have and always will love technology and little gadgets. The newest and coolest electronics were always on my list to Santa as a child. Needless to say, I was a very expensive child to shop for. I was a computer nerd… I even placed in Novell’s Young Network Professional of the Year competition while in high school. So, you might expect me to glow with enthusiasm at the thought of extensive convergence of computers and consumer electronics. Hardly. I may be a geek, but I was also raised on a healthy diet of pessimism and skepticism. News of smart watches that check your blood pressure and the score of the latest Yankees game, mobile phones that not only play MP3s but also play games and take photos… well, these things cause me to raise an eyebrow. Do I really need a TV that records my favorite shows and suggests a viewing schedule based on what I watched last night?

As mentioned before, I am certainly not a Ted Kaczynski-type, writing anti-technology manifestos on a circa 1930 typewriter in my shack in the woods. I’m sitting at a brand new Apple G5, looking at a flat panel monitor. My iPod is just a foot or two away. I use email as my preferred method of distance communication. I have multiple websites. I tend to inhale technology at a rate that would make a coke addict blush and my credit card company scared. So why on earth would a person such as I not be thrilled at the thought of what is happening in technology? Well, perhaps it is best to explain what exactly I’m talking about.

A recent poll stated that over half of consumers today would be willing to record programs and movies on their PCs, if they could playback the content on a standard television (Gonsalves). Capitalizing on similar reports, Microsoft, that bastion of all that is corporate and Orwellian in the world economy, have responded by issuing a version of their Windows operating system specially angled toward these users. Called Windows, Media Center Edition, this modified OS controls “media center PCs” designed to act as a “digital hub”… a “PC… that can play music or movies, record TV shows and display photos, with commands being issued from a remote control” (Fried).

Sounds kind of nice, doesn’t it? Sit down in your living room, turn on your Media Center, and watch a pre-recorded episode of Law and Order (what… there is something else worth watching on TV?), skipping commercials, of course. Or perhaps turning on a play list of your favorite MP3s to play through your kickin’ home stereo. Visions of the future-world exhibits at 50’s era World’s Fairs abound. Push button simplicity! But before I jump into anything new, I like to take a step back and take another look. How many times has your computer crashed on you? How many times has it happened while you’re in the middle of something important, like your personal finances or a school report? Okay, with that in mind, think about your TV, your DVD player, and your home stereo. How many times have they crashed? That question seems just a bit silly. It’s a TV (etc.), for crying out loud! It doesn’t crash! Right? Well, it might… coming soon to your living room!

Computers crashing at inopportune moments have become a thing of folklore. The old stalwart excuse of school children everywhere, “The dog ate my homework!” has been replaced by a much more feasible horror: My computer ate my homework! But homework and taxes aside, what exactly can go wrong with a media center? Come on now, you might be saying, aside from a little inconvenience, what could even happen? So you miss 10 minutes of your show… so what? Well, remember that these devices don’t just replace your DVD player, etc… they are also marketed as a “hub”… a place where everything comes together. As the study said, more than half of people are interested in recording their shows and movies and storing them on this device, to watch on their TV. We’ve all lost reports, etc, on our personal computer. Most of us have had to format our hard drive in a night of frustration and phone calls to tech support. The information and files lost are almost maddening. I personally lost over a year’s worth of portfolio worthy digital art when a drive became corrupted. Imagine, then, if you will, having all of your albums, all of your movies (DVD and home movies), all of your family photos on your media center. Great… quick access to all that content. Then imagine your media center crashing, and you have to format the drive. You lose all the albums, the movies, etc. Albums can be re-encoded, as can your DVD movies, but at a huge inconvenience to you. I personally have in the neighborhood of 300 CDs in my collection… getting them all on my computer is a task I am still not even close to completing in my spare time. If I had to start over, I’d be ready to destroy something. Importing a DVD and converting it to a format ready to be viewed is a rather cumbersome process anyway… doing it 50 times over would not be fun. MP3s and DVDs wouldn’t be the biggest blow, however… not by a long shot. Imagine losing all your photos of special occasions and family trips that you took with your digital camera, all your home movies taken straight from your fancy new DV Camcorder to the hard drive of your media center.

The first month I owned a digital camera, I took a weeklong excursion to Seattle, one of my all time favorite towns. I took some memorable shots that week, and when I got home, they went straight on to my PC for viewing. A few months later, the photos out of mind and “safely” backed-up on my hard drive, Windows decided it didn’t like me. Try as I might, I could not get my computer to run more than a minute before crashing. I have become quite proficient with computers after years of using them and having jobs in the IT sector, but I couldn’t save my hard drive this time. Most of my important documents, school papers and digital art had been backed-up on Zip disks… but not my Seattle photos. So, yes, that was a bit frustrating, but imagine having the photos of your child’s first birthday on there, or video of your wedding. Imagine losing that. I can only compare it to losing those memories in a house fire. But, unlike a fire, insurance doesn’t cover computer crashes.

To be honest, most people won’t put up with crashes in the realm of consumer electronics, such as stereo equipment and clock radios. “The consumer experience has to be on par with the experience from the best consumer electronics…[It] has to respond quickly, it can’t be buggy, and it can’t crash” (Gonsalves). People won’t put up with unstable equipment when dealing with consumer electronics (yet strangely they can stand the abusive relationship that is working on a computer). Mike Flanary, vice president of desktops at Gateway, after a failed initial foray into the living room, agrees. “Consumers won’t compromise watching TV,” Flanary said. “It has to work flawlessly” (Fried).

For these media centers to succeed, they need to be more like 80% consumer electronics and 20% computer, rather than the 50/50 setup of today (Gonsalves). Not only do they need to be stable, but also they need to be relatively simple to use. My late grandfather never sued a computer; he couldn’t read the little text, he didn’t get the metaphors… but he used a VCR almost daily. Sure, he couldn’t set it up to record a show at a certain time, but then again, most of us don’t know how to do that anyway. TVs and video players are just one place where the over complexity of computers is spreading.