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Monday, September 15, 2008

A Theory of Convergence?

I've been watching and analysing various types of telecoms and computing "convergence" for many years.

One thing jumps out at me: not all expected types of convergence actually happen - and even more happen *much* more slower than anticipated. But some occur almost overnight.

I'm starting to think about patterns here - what converges successfully? And what remains "unconvergeable"? And how predictable are these?

(Mobile Phone + Digital Camera) is one of the fastest, most successful examples of convergence.
But (Mobile Phone + TV) is one of the slowest - and is arguably an outright failure.

In the enterprise market, IP-PBXs have slowly reached the mainstream, blending voice and data networks. But it's taken 12 years or so, and the convergence process still isn't complete.

Ideally, I'd like to develop a "Theory of Convergence". At the moment, I regularly try to predict what will/won't blend, but it's on a case-by-case basis. So for example, recently I've been assessing whether the PC and phone might converge - and based on numerous specific reasons like battery size, ergonomics and distribution/business model, it seems highly unlikely.

Some of the elements of such a theory would be:
  • technical convergence of *most* components of the convergent products, not just the central computing or communications element
  • ability to converge distribution channels (this delayed enterprise VoIP for 5+ years)
  • ability to converge useability and user-experience
  • ability to converge business models / purchase process

So for example, converging handsets with small digital cameras has relied not just on the phone's processor, but also convergence of memory on flash RAM, small/lighter lenses for basic digicams, the reduction of the importance of printed photos meaning that camera business model is now "convergeable", and a mostly low-touch distribution model for cameras (ie they can be sold on a standalone basis by unskilled staff in retail or online stores). And basic digicams have small, sub-1000MAH batteries.

Conversely, these factors don't apply to high-end cameras which are essentially "unconvergeable"

As well as batteries, to my mind, PC and phone also have other "unconvergeable" aspects around distribution and business model. In particular, PCs aren't sold with associated "services" and, particularly, are not locked or customised for a given "service provider". Distribution is also a challenge, as are various aspects of user-experience and ergonomics.

PC/dongle (ie PC/module) is a slightly different convergence situation (dongles don't have batteries), but also falls down in the business model / distribution stakes. For example, dongles have legacy SIM cards, and attempts to integrate them with notebooks' connection managers are clunky.

It doesn't mean these types of convergence won't happen at all - but just that the Venn diagram won't overlap that much.

I've still got quite a lot of thinking to do about creating a generic Theory of Convergence - but this theme of "convergeability" is one I'll be coming back to over the next few months.


Anonymous said...

Wireless networks are indeed tempting users to bring their broadband beyond the notebook PC.

UMPC has proven a hit in the form of the eeePC. Mobility is sexy and tempting.

iPhone 3G allows browsing on the run.

All these signposts could be pointing to an early convergence as soon as a compelling device appears in the horizon.


Anonymous said...

In your quest towards a “Theory of Convergence”, I would start giving a precise definition of the “PC” term: digital cameras, mobile phones and TVs already have a pretty precise definition, but a PC is a very versatile term, and machine. Being able to install previously approved programs from a central store is very different from being able to install ANY program without any central store and with decentralized authorities: the PC allows the second option, but the iPhone prefers the first one. Therefore, and in this particular case, depending on what you consider to be paramount to the PC definition, it would allow classifying the iPhone as a converged device. What’s more, if you consider that browsing and downloading data is central to the PC experience, Japanese mobile phones would qualify as converged devices since the web is accessed from PCs and mobiles almost equally.

Digital Evangelist said...


MIT looked at convergence in the 1950s for GE and told them to stop making ovens and invest R&D $ in Microwave Ovens because come 1975 that is all that Households would use.

Working with PSION before the pulled out of the PDA market I saw research that said that the consumer rather than converge was more interested in a multiple devices. This is something that I have seen to be true still; you just have to look at those on the tube to see how many have an iPod and Phone, Blackberry and Phone.

Whilst iXi failed to make good on its vision of bluetooth connected consumer electronics I still think that its the future. Whilst my latest smartphone means that I no longer take a laptop into London as I can catch email. It's not the hardware that makes the convergence its the software that allows access from any device.