As media convergence intensifies, the consumer electronics industry is striving to come up with that ‘iPod product’ – the one that will transform entertainment at home and on our mobile phones
If anyone still doubts the power of the digital revolution to change all our lives – particularly those of us in the media – they should have been in Las Vegas last week. At the giant Consumer Electronics Show – a remarkable technofest that attracts more than 130,000 people from 110 countries – Bill Gates of Microsoft, Larry Page of Google, Howard Stringer of Sony and dozens of rivals and wannabes were showing off their latest communications technology.
Gates announced a tie-up with BSkyB that will bring a video-on-demand film and sport service to UK computers via broadband, using Microsoft’s Windows Media Centre software. In the opening keynote presentation, enlivened by Justin Timberlake in person and Muhammad Ali and Joe Frasier in replica through the new XBox 360 games- console-cum-media centre, Gates laid out his vision of a “connected world”.
If he and Microsoft have their way, we’ll soon all be accessing our information and entertainment wherever we are – at home, in the car, in the office or anywhere we go – with a phone. He showed us a flat touch-screen panel in the kitchen in which you can watch customised TV reports, travel and weather. At the office, there would be a large screen running the length of the desk, on which documents, family photos and videos could be displayed. Through the GPS satellite technology now used for route-finding in cars, it could even show the whereabouts of each family member, evoking shades of Harry Potter’s Marauders Map and Big Brother.
Not to be outdone, Page announced Google’s latest venture in its bid to take over the digital world – an on-line video store, in which US viewers can download sports events and TV shows like CSI and Star Trek, and for $1.99 (&£1.13) a time.
Stringer – accompanied by Tom Hanks and Da Vinci Code star author Dan Brown – unveiled Sony’s latest attempt to woo readers to the idea of the digital book. The Sony Reader is a handheld device about the size of a paperback, on which you can download and store up to a hundred titles. Sony hopes it will succeed where others have failed because of the new concepts e-paper and e-ink, which make it more comfortable to read than a backlit screen.
What made the Sony Reader unusual in Las Vegas was that it wasn’t trying to cram everything into one device. Like products in the Innovations catalogue – “the solar-powered toaster and bottle-opener that thinks it’s a calculator” – the drive to bring everything together seems unstoppable.
As well as Microsoft and Google, big names such as Intel, Yahoo, Philips and others were all bidding to put their hardware and software at the heart of the converging information and entertainment business. Everyone is doing deals with almost everyone else, trying to combine the best software with the best content, for fear of missing the boat. (Only Apple, which has revolutionised the music business with its iPod and iTunes and is now offering video too, was largely absent from Las Vegas, saving itself for its own exhibition this week). This is convergence in action. One battle is to be at the centre of the home, through a TV-cum-broadband-media centre, connecting all the screens and speakers in the house, recording and playing music, downloading TV shows and films, playing DVDs and home videos, sorting photos and handling e-mails and the internet. The other battle is outside the home – to create the ultimate mobile device, doing all the same things but on a much smaller screen.
Microsoft, of course, is in both arenas. At Las Vegas, it announced a tie-up with its former rival, the handheld computer maker Palm, which means Windows software will be available on the new Palm Treo W700. This 14-function, mobile phone-cum-PDA was one of the highlights in the Last Gadget Standing session on the final day, in which people voted for the best new product of the Show. Ten slick and highly entertaining salespeople were given four minutes each to convince the audience that their gadget was the best.
One of the two winners demonstrated convergence in action by putting an iPod and a radio into a food blender and turning it on! The other winner – a GPS device that lets astronomers instantly locate and identify stars – was described, quite accurately, as “the iPod of astronomy”.
And of course that’s what they’re all after – that iPod breakthrough product that changes the way we do things. It was in Las Vegas that the industry first saw the video cassette recorder, the CD, the DVD and high-definition TV, several years before they reached the shops.
Astronomy aside, there were no obvious breakthroughs this year. But instead, there was a conviction that convergence and connectivity – much talked about in the past – have really arrived and the all-singing, all-dancing communications centre, whether in a mobile phone or in the home, is a reality. If you’re a broadcaster or a publisher, an advertiser or an agency, you can no longer ignore that.