The art of convergence

Combining computer technology with consumer electronics

Far from just a workplace phenomenon, the rapidly changing face of computing is affecting
all aspects of our lives-but the effect is not always obvious. A concept known as convergence involves manufacturers taking the best, most useful components of computer technology and incorporating them into familiar household appliances to create “smarter” homes for the new millennium.

Analysts have been touting convergence for years, eventually expecting a central PC to control everything in your home from the television to the heat and electricity. In the consumer electronics industry convergence means convenience. It’s the result of a race for the consumer’s time, says Sonia Khademi, president and CEO of interactive television service provider CableSoft Corp. (www.cablesoft.com) based in Burlington, Massachusetts. “The Internet portals want TV viewers and the networks want to regain the time consumers spend on PCs. Everyone is lobbying for a viewing world.”

The early stages of convergence have already begun to infiltrate our daily lives by changing mundane objects such as televisions and telephones into appliance/PC hybrids known as information appliances. International Data Corp., a Framingham, Massachusetts-based information technology market research firm, expects 55.7 million information appliances to be in use worldwide by 2002, up from 6 million in 1998.

Computer maker Gateway was the first to blur the line between appliance and PC with its Destination series of PCs, which start at $1,999 and are designed for the living room with large monitors (over 29 inches) and a built-in TV tuner. WebTV uses a set-top box to provide Internet access via your television in a less ambitious (and cheaper) way of combining the features of the TV and PC. The $200 device, manufactured by several companies including Philips and Sony, is so far the most widely used example of convergence. Lately, though, there’s another set-top box stealing some of WebTV’s thunder.

ReplayTV, a sort of digital VCR, was introduced earlier this year in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show. The device, developed by Replay Networks (www.replaytv.com), uses Internet and computer technology to help viewers catch their favorite shows. The $699 device plugs into a regular phone line and downloads television programming information from the Internet. TV viewers can then program Replay TV to find and record their favorite shows and store them on the unit’s hard drive. “People aren’t convinced they want to watch TV on computers,” says Replay spokesperson Ron Kalb. “But they’re missing their favorite shows.” He maintains that ReplayTV is not intended to replace computers or televisions, but rather to bridge the gap between the two.

“I don’t believe you’re ever going to watch Gone With the Wind on a PC, or do your banking on your TV,” says Khademi, whose company develops information services for cable
operators. The company leverages the resources of the Internet for cable subscribers and its SnapFacts service lets subscribers access channels of information from the Internet with a click of the remote control. Users have access to up-to-the-minute information on local weather, sports, restaurants and entertainment.

Television isn’t the only area of the home that’s

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