Convergence: The Time Is Near

Having just spent the past weekend in digital cable-TV heaven (and counseling my uncle-in-law who spent the weekend in new-PC-owner hell), I’ve really begun to wonder about when the web is going to disappear as we know it, at least as far as consumers go.

First, the sad story of my uncle. After much deliberation (and many phone calls to me), he plunked down a significant chunk o’ change two weeks ago for a brand-new, top-of-the-line PC. Excited, he got it home, plugged it in, and booted it up, and it promptly froze every 10 minutes or so. He trundled it back to his local retailer, exchanged it for a new one, and became the proud owner of a PC that works most of the time, unless he wants to listen to a CD for longer than 10 minutes.

He called me, exasperated with his purchase. “Is this supposed to happen?” he asked. “This thing freezes at least once every other day or so. I have to reboot!”

Every other day or so? I told him he was lucky. Most of the PCs in my office and at home freeze once a day during heavy use. But that didn’t console him. How could this happen? How could manufacturers sell a product that broke every other day? How come people put up with this?

I told him I agreed and to call tech support. Welcome to the wonderful world of home computing!

On the other hand, my digital cable story is about as different an experience as could be possible. The installer showed up, hooked up a few cables, turned on the new set-top box, and voil`! We were watching something ridiculous like 400 channels of TV (and a bunch of all-music channels).

If I want to see what movies are on, I press a button for the onscreen guide and read ’em from a menu. If I want to be reminded when a show’s coming on, I just hit the “Remind” button. If I want to browse the guide while I watch a station, a nifty “browser bar” stays onscreen as I click through the channels. Many movies feature onscreen descriptions, and small bannerlike ads in the menu system give me details of upcoming events.

Oh, and did I mention that it never crashed? Not even once?

Getting to know my new digital cable system took, oh, something like 10 minutes of clicking around with my new remote. And, if I got stuck, a continuously running “help” video on channel 500 (or so… I had to watch only part of it once, so I can’t remember the channel) can give tips. Overall, the picture quality, sound, and experience were great — no training required.

As I mulled over these two opposite experiences, I really began to wonder if the web can survive being such a user-surly environment. Heck, I’ve been working with computers for almost 20 years now, and I still have problems installing new software or dealing with the gajillions of conflicts that can arise when installing software. My poor uncle… heck, he’s about ready to give up!

What do most people do online? They send and receive email, surf the web for news and information, play games, and chat. Do they really need a computer (with all its attendant problems) for that? With new, more sophisticated Net-connected game consoles, email appliances, and digital cable systems out there, I doubt it.

Research group eTForecasts predicted recently that by 2005, 71 percent of Internet users will carry out their online activities using some form of Internet appliance. I actually think this number may be low, especially when it comes to home users.

Why? Because consumers of the future, while they still will have a PC to do stuff like run games, process words, and balance their checkbooks, will be accessing the Internet everywhere. They’ll use the web (as we know it today) when they need information when they’re at their computer. But when they’re looking for news, weather, sports scores, and entertainment, they’ll probably turn to the (digital) TV instead.

In fact, the Internet will really be in all sorts of things, from the email appliance in the kitchen to the navigation system in the car to the home HVAC systems. This is one step beyond the convergence that’s been touted for years… this is ubiquity. And it’s going to change how we all need to think about marketing to consumers.

In the next five years, web marketing may be seen as a cute anachronism from the early days of the Internet revolution. The use of digital technology to communicate with consumers will have moved far beyond the PC desktop to targeted ads in digital TV/digital recorder systems (as planned with TiVo and ReplayTV), multiscreen digital content broadcast over the HDTV spectrum, interactive content in regular television shows, and interactive offerings through WebTV and digital cable systems (which will probably become one and the same to some extent).

When the communications universe for these products opens up (as it is on track to do so by 2006 with the new digital TV standards passed by the FCC), separating marketing efforts out into different electronic media is going to seem downright silly, if not suicidal. If the goal is to reach consumers wherever they are, we’d better be prepared to be there.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” you may be saying, “we’ve heard all this ‘interactive-TV bullpuckey’ for years.” And you’re right. But I think that finally the forces that’ll make it happen are converging in the right spot… and this is the right time.

The web has gotten people used to interactivity and connectivity, and they’re craving more. The broadband infrastructure has grown tremendously. Consumers have become increasingly comfortable with technology and have come to expect more from it. The government has mandated change, to some extent. The Net has reached critical mass.

But most of all, I’ve come to believe that it’s consumers who are truly going to drive this convergent digital future simply from an ease-of-use standpoint. There’s a reason AOL is the No. 1 access point to the Internet: It’s easy to use. In the future, ease of use is going to win out everywhere as tomorrow’s digital consumers seek an easy-to-use solution to their information overload. That solution may be what most of us already have in our living rooms — the TV.

(Note: For a good basic intro to digital TV, check out Digital TV: A Cringely Crash Course.)

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