myth of appliance convergence
‘ve been promised convergence for nearly a decade now.
They say that one day, you will surf the Net with your
TV, operate your washing machine from home, and that all
your home appliances will be “Net-enabled”. But there’s
very little chance that it’s going to happen”
initial buyer curiosity for long-term success is a big
marketing mistake and unfortunately, one that many companies
They've been preaching it for many years now. Don't hold
your breath though. It'll never happen.
What exactly is convergence? I wanted to get an "official"
definition, so I looked it up on www.whatis.com and this
is what I got: "In information technology, convergence
is a term for the combining of personal computers, telecommunication,
and television into a user experience that is accessible
I assure you that it just isn't going to happen. Not today,
not in the future. The media may be going all bonkers
about it. That doesn't make it more likely. Nor will wishful
thinking by companies that have invested large chunks
of money in "convergence devices".
Don't believe me? Just ask the manufacturers of the "Internet
TVs" how sales are doing. When I was doing research
for this column on the Net, I found an article from the
year 2000 claiming that the Onida Webcruiser was already
selling 2000 units a month and the company was bullish
about its prospects. The next article was from January
2001 in the Economic Times about how these devices had
flopped. Sales are now only a few hundred units per month
compared to half a million for regular TVs. The article
quoted the COO of Mirc Electronics, G Sundar as saying
"The existing distribution channel is not right for
selling such products and also, a lot of consumer education
is needed as most of them expect the full functionality
of a PC in Internet TV". Mr Sundar has hit the nail
right on the head the market expects an Internet TV to
work exactly like a regular PC. Too bad he didn't realize
it earlier. He might have saved the company a lot of money.
Mistaking initial buyer curiosity for long-term success
is a big marketing mistake and unfortunately, one that
many companies make.
Some might say that these devices aren't succeeding because
their time hasn't come yet. After all, there is a certain
"cool" factor about having your watch work as
a digital camera, your phone work as an MP3 player, your
refrigerator being used to surf the Net, and your fax
machine working as a photocopier. Geeks love these kinds
of devices. For them, utility is secondary; mere possession
of these devices is enough. But that's exactly the point.
Apart from the early adopter, these products don't work
for a mainstream market. These people have to be convinced
that there's actually some benefit from buying these multifunctional
devices (or MFDs.) And in just about every case, that
benefit just isn't there.
The biggest problem with MFDs is that there's always a
compromise involved in their design. Designers of these
products face a tough challenge. They must successfully
integrate two or more (sometimes unrelated) devices (for
example, a watch and a digital camera). They have to restrict
the dimensions of the device (you can't have a watch that's
as big as a digital camera or you wouldn't be able to
wear it.) And they must do all this within a reasonable
price that the market can bear. In other words, it's just
about impossible to do. It's like asking for a Ferrari
that has great engine performance, costs only $10,000
and is fuel-efficient too! You can't have it both ways.
There's always a tradeoff. To top it all, when you want
to get a better camera, you've got to throw away your
watch too. Upgrading is a big problem with MFDs.
Let's take a few examples. The browser technology in Internet
TVs is primitive (you can't play MP3s, view Flash, or
run Java applets.) They have no hard disk, so you can't
keep your e-mail for reading later. Nor can you save attachments,
download MP3 files, or store your friend's wedding pictures.
This limits you to just browsing websites for information
(and you can't store that information anywhere.) Can you
upgrade your browser like you can with Internet Explorer
or Netscape? No. Why would you want a device like this?
And for about Rs 25000, what do you get? You get a very
expensive TV and a lousy browser (Internet access costs
How about the Casio watch that also functions as a digital
camera? Well, the watch part is OK. But the digital camera
is nothing to write home about. It lacks a flash, has
a resolution of only 144 x 176 pixels and shows pictures
in grayscale on the watch. You also have to keep your
arm absolutely still while taking the photos. And the
photo quality is nowhere near a proper digital camera.
For $269 (about Rs 13000), what do you get? You get an
expensive watch and an amateur digital camera. The product
may be a hit with people who just want the latest gadgets,
but people who want better pictures will probably buy
a camera with adequate features.
Apart from the functional issues, MFDs also suffer from
manufacturers trying to change the way people use these
devices. Instead of observing how people do things and
developing products around that, companies try and change
the way they use them. This usually breeds unnecessary
complexity. Trying to change people's habits drastically
is dangerous. It almost never works. Visit LG's site and
read about their "Digital Network Refrigerator".
It says, "Have you ever imagined taking face to face
with your family through your refrigerator? Or doing Internet
shopping through it? The LCD window not only displays
the inside temperature but also reports on the validity
date of all the food, their nutritional value, culinary
possibilities, delicacies, and as well as on staples which
have run out and been ordered from the supermarket."
Talking with your family through the refrigerator? That
just sounds creepy. I suppose people will have to stop
using the fridge while talking to their family. How about
information on the food? People will have to enter information
about food and expiry dates manually. The appliance wants
to turn you into a supermarket assistant! Isn't technology
supposed to make our lives easier?
Using a fridge used to be easy. You opened the door, put
in the food, and closed the door. Now, you have to enter
information about the food as well. What if you're going
out for the weekend and your fridge magically orders food
for you? And how is it to know what I want to eat from
day to day anyway? Lastly, you'll do Internet shopping
from your refrigerator? Doesn't that sound wacky to anyone?
Hey, do I get a free chair with it too or do I have to
stand and navigate the Net? Heck, that's what I have a
PC for. And at a list price of $9999 (about Rs 4.8 Lakhs)
for the fridge, I can buy myself a new fridge, PC, home
theatre system, washing machine and a motorcycle, thank
Don't confuse what's possible with what's useful. Specialized
devices are much better than a device that can do ten
things, but do not do any of them particularly well. I
love my Swiss army knife but when I want to cut vegetables
in my kitchen, it's a poor choice. Yes, you can make photocopies
of documents on your fax machine but do you know any business
that does so regularly? No, they probably use a photocopy
machine instead? Why? The specialized machine is faster
and has more useful features.
Don't believe the hype. The future belongs not to convergence
devices, but to divergent (i.e., specialized) devices.
Convergence isn't happening, and that's not going to change
just because the media or the manufacturers tell you so.
Madhu Menon is an Internet consultant
based in Bangalore. You can e-mail him at email@example.com