Back to the Future
As we consider the current trends in interactive media, we look back to the last ten years - what worked, what didn't, and what could still happen? Michael Nutley believes that the promises being made for broadband now are very similar to those being made for the narrowband Internet. Should we believe them?
When considering the current trends in interactive media, the phrase that repeatedly springs to my mind is "back to the future". Anyone who was around the new media industry six or seven years ago will recognise the promises being made for broadband now are very similar to those being made for the narrowband Internet back then; from e-tail to online advertising. So it's not entirely surprising that another idea that's back under the microscope is that of convergence.
Convergence, as NMA columnist Nigel Walley pointed out recently, used to be about Internet content on your TV. In its resurrection, it's about Internet functionality on your TV, and television content on your PC. You've been able to watch streamed video of news reports on the BBC site for a while now, but the recent introduction of video advertising formats means that you're likely to see a TV commercial in the next pop-up or expandable banner you encounter. Meanwhile TVs are getting smarter, allowing you to request a brochure, a sample or a test-drive in response to an ad, and filling in the required form from the owner information stored in the set-top box.
But things have already moved on from this. Microsoft's Media Centre PC aims to replace the TV at the heart of the home entertainment set-up. It offers broadband, cable TV, PVR functionality and digital music playback. In fact Sam Sethi, the co-founder of a company installing broadband and Media Centre PCs into new-build homes, said in a recent NMA interview that the future of interactive TV would be a battle between the current red button and Microsoft's green button. In the meantime, Sony has just begun advertising a range of flat-screen TVs that can also be used as PC monitors.
However all of this ignores two crucial issues. The first is ergonomic - no-one has yet come up with a satisfactory way for people to browse the Web via their TV. Infra-red keyboards never took off, and expecting people to perform complex data entry or navigational tasks using their remote is unrealistic. The second problem is one of family politics; who controls the remote, and therefore what's on the TV? Much Internet use is private in a way that TV viewing rarely is.
Sethi aims to get round the first problem by recruiting companies to a walled garden for which they would be required to design new "lean-back" Web sites. Meanwhile research is suggesting that PCs are being moved out of the study, home office or back-bedroom and into the lounge to allow people to accompany their TV watching with Internet use, thereby solving both problems.
But while attention has been focussed on device convergence, other people have been looking at the actual content involved. Reuters is working on software that senses the device on which the user is viewing the content, and optimises it to match. The company describes itself as thinking in terms of one-foot, three-foot and ten-foot content, referring to the distance between the viewer and the screen. So while the points being made in a news report delivered via mobile, the Internet and the TV will be the same, the style of the visuals used will be tailored to the platform.
Ultimately the flaw in the idea of device convergence is that it's unlikely to actually result in there being only one Internet-connected device in the home. The problems mentioned above almost guarantee that. But as bandwidth and computing power continue to get cheaper, functional convergence is approaching rapidly. Homes will soon be full of smart appliances connecting wirelessly to the Internet to deliver all kinds of services, from content to remote monitoring. The growing interest in Radio Frequency ID chips for stock control in the retail industry points the way to a fridge that automatically updates your regular supermarket e-tail order. In fact an Internet-connected fridge is already on the market. Now when did I hear about that idea before?
About the author: Michael Nutley is the editor of New Media Age.