Convergence: What Is It, Anyway?

Few buzzwords are more elusive than “convergence.” People use the term casually, almost recklessly, to refer to many of the stunning developments that are reshaping the media and technology businesses.

Personal organizers take digital pictures. Video and music stream over web sites. People use cell phones to surf the Internet for movie times and order tickets.

Sure, it’s all convergence. But what does it really mean? The space is clouded with hype, confusion, and activity, and no one seems to agree on the boundaries.

The dictionary is no help, and the web just adds to the fog. Run a search for “define convergence” on Internet search engine Google, and you’ll find more than 100,000 results. The answers are all over the place, but none that we found is particularly relevant for marketers seeking to plan and prioritize their brand communications activity in the lightning-quick business of media convergence.

In an effort to clarify the issue from a practical point of view, we’d like to add one more definition to the list: Convergence is the intentional use of technology to integrate the devices necessary to accomplish certain tasks. Now, let’s see if we can defend it.

We chose the word “technology” because we want to focus the discussion and not have to entertain conversations about toothpaste that freshens breath and whitens teeth.

“Devices” again brings focus by suggesting things everyday consumers are likely to interact with and that will impact day-to-day life. We’ve seen some definitions that suggest that “convergence” is about industries coming together. Perhaps, but that isn’t practical to marketers trying to understand the implications of people’s media consumption habits.

“Tasks.” Now we’re really getting someplace. “It’s about convenience,” says Brian Cauley, President and CEO of MerlinTV. Cauley’s company produces webcasts in synch with popular TV shows and promotes online purchasing of related products. His theory on convergence: “People want to be able to get things done, and to many people, convergence is about getting two things done at once.”

The most controversial word in the definition is “intentional.” The term is important because it allows for certain distinctions and supports the competitive nature of convergence. Watching a pay-per-view boxing match on cable isn’t what people think of as convergence. But, to use the same cable TV to download videos on demand is something we hear about as convergence. What’s the difference? Is it intent? It’s hard to accept, but harder to ignore.

A brutal implication of “intent” is the Darwinian process of natural selection that takes place as consumers change behavior and use different devices to accomplish familiar tasks. As this occurs, technologies fall by the wayside, and new devices flourish.

Take the $10.1 billion video rental business, for example. For years, cable, satellite, and entertainment companies have set their sights on replacing the VCR with flashy video-on-demand services.

For the most part, these efforts have fizzled, as illustrated by Time Warner’s Full Service Network and other costly flops. Despite its inferior analog technology and the hassle involved with driving to and from the video store to rent and return a clunky cassette, the VCR still rules. Blockbuster is making a fortune in the business, with some $3 billion in video sales during 1999. The reason is most likely the convenience alluded to by Cauley.

So in the interests of practical, actionable definitions, we’ve put a line in the sand. In future articles, we will build on this definition and start to highlight the practical implications.

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