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A Reluctant Case for Convergence

I’m out of the office, so I’ve posted this draft of my column in advance of it going on MediaPost (it will also be on this page when it’s live). Your feedback’s welcome as always, although my response will be a bit delayed.

A Reluctant Case for Convergence
By David Berkowitz
The Search Insider

If the Consumer Electronics Show is an indication of where
hardware is heading, then everyone better be ready for the convergence of every
device out there. Yet how much credit can you give to a show that featured
2,700 exhibitors but was trumped in the press by a single product announcement
from Apple at Macworld that same week?

While I was there earlier this month, speaking on a Digital
Hollywood panel about online video, I kept grappling with this issue of
convergence. Will the Web truly become device-agnostic, with searches coming
from any and every platform?

After reading The
Origin of Brands
by Al and Laura Ries, I’ve become convinced that
divergence, not convergence, is the safer bet (for a great read, check out Christina
Kerley’s review and interview with the authors
). In the first drafts of
this column, its working titles included “Keep Video Search on the Web” and
“Holding off on Convergence.” Despite that, I’m still finding myself swayed by
the powerful convergence forces brewing that connect to how consumers search.
Here are four such forces:

1) TVs are no longer
just lean-back devices
. While most TV viewing remains passive, and often
it’s only on as background noise, consumers are starting to appreciate the
control they can have over it. One lean-forward onslaught comes in the form of
personal video recorders (TiVo et al). I’ve recently joined the fray, and my
better half Cara watches my face beam when I have the chance to fast forward
through commercials, create my own instant replays during a sports telecast, or
just pause viewing when we get a phone call. Separately, another big
lean-forward push comes from console video games. Nintendo’s Wii managed to not
just get gamers off the couch, but has made gaming a physical and sometimes
strenuous activity.

More to the point, last month Variety said that Xbox Live is
proving to be the most
successful movie download service
. Reporter Ben Fritz wrote, “The relative
success of video downloads on Microsoft’s Xbox Live and disappointment of Amazon.com’s
Unbox point to two factors that differentiate Xbox from Amazon and its many
other competitors — consumers who download a movie want a simple way to watch
it on their TV, and those with high-def TVs want high-def content. Thanks to
the Xbox 360’s direct connection to a TV and the console’s focus on HD content,
Microsoft can deliver both.”

2) There’s now too
much content on TV to navigate by browsing.
The search functionality on the
PVR I use from Time Warner Cable involves using arrow keys to select a letter,
and then for each subsequent letter, it only highlights available options from
its database. For instance, if I wanted to look for Queer as Folk, I’d select “Q,” and then only “U” would appear, so I
could quickly select that letter until I was satisfied with the list that
appeared to the right. This search functionality is alright, but it’s barely
passable with the massive volume of content available, which includes about a
week’s worth of programs on 150 regular stations, all the options on Movies on
Demand, other on-demand channels, HD listings, and everything else. As content
from the web (such as YouTube videos) becomes available on TV, the content will
multiply exponentially, as will the need to efficiently search it.

3) Google’s going there.
The least surprising search engine announcements this year will be Google
locking up TV deals. The deals on the surface will really be about Google’s
advertising platform, and Google’s quick to remind everyone that it’s more than
a search engine. Yet, if consumers do search via their TVs, that will open up
more advertising opportunities.

4) Search is
inherently device agnostic.
There’s nothing about searching itself that
requires it to be tethered to PCs. It’s just that PCs have a number of
advantages, such as full-size keyboards and at least relatively easy access to
all the publicly available content online. If search is a medium, as some have
postulated, it’s not about the device at all, whether it’s a PC, mobile phone,
TV, or wristwatch.

Fast Forward

Ultimately, as video search, and search in general, moves to
the TV, there will need to be some better ways to use it. My prediction: TV
remote controls will soon resemble mobile phones. I could even envision a
future where mobile phones are easily programmed to operate every device in a
home entertainment center. Phones already have built-in keyboards, and my cell
phone is half the size of my remote control, so merging the two wouldn’t
require too much further innovation.

Convergence will not be smooth transition as envisioned by
many technology stalwarts. It is, however, set in motion, so it’s best to start
preparing now for the spiraling effects to come.

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