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The myth of appliance convergence

“We ‘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”

"Mistaking initial buyer curiosity for long-term success is a big marketing mistake and unfortunately, one that many companies make."

Convergence. 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 to everyone".

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 not included.)

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 you.

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 webguru@vsnl.net

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