What struck me about last week's Consumer Electronics Show--the huge annual gadget bacchanalia convening, naturally, in Las Vegas--is the buzzword people don't say anymore. Only a few years ago people breathlessly uttered "convergence" as sort of a catchall mantra. It embodied the elusive idea that different media, including every variety of sound, image and data, could be served up together and consumed like a giant main-course salad, with fantastic benefits in the process. Now you rarely hear it, because the concept is so here and now that it would be like commenting on air.
Though the miles of aisles at the humongous show were filled with everything from cars pimped with half the inventory of a Circuit City to plasma television screens so wide you couldn't squeeze them into a McMansion, to me, the flagships of this year's event were handheld devices that have become this century's version of Swiss Army knives.
Someone would hand you a cigarette-box-size chunk of plastic with a little screen and then proceed to explain what it was. A music player, of course, And a camera-slash-camcorder. A radio. Oh, and it records radio too. As well as recording your voice. And next year we're putting in Wi-Fi so you'll surf the Net with it, and, of course, use it as a VOIP (voice-over-Internet-protocol) telephone. Because of the utter fungibility of digital, everything can do anything. (Making it easy to use is another matter.)
A related force, similarly relentless, is the Internetizing of everything, preferably without wires. This allows, in theory at least, for people to move all their entertainment and personal content from one device to another. "For the past few years, the big influence was time-shifting, but this year it's about space-shifting," says Brad Sugar of the start-up company 2 Wire. "It's watching anything you want on everything you want."
Meanwhile, a new buzzword did emerge this year, though it's more of an unpoetic acronym: IP (Internet-protocol) TV. It refers to television content sent over the Net, and though the digerati have long assumed this was inevitable, the noise got louder when Bill Gates made it a key component of his opening speech. He announced that phone companies like BellSouth were conducting trials using Microsoft technology--and that the big SBC telco was spending hundreds of millions to go ahead with the plan. This would mean that as an alternative to your current cable TV or satellite provider, you could buy your programming from a phone company.
Because it uses the anything-goes Internet, IPTV will inject a jolt of steroids into the couch-potato experience. "You can get picture-in-picture, using multiple camera angles," says SBC's Dan York, who also gushes that everyone automatically gets TiVo-like recording functions "that you'll be able to control from your Cingular phone." IPTV also removes limits on the number of channels a video provider can deliver, so even the most obscure niche (Corkscrew collecting! Beach cricket! Angry video blogs!) will have its own 24-hour stream.
Gates himself is excited about the possibilities that IPTV could offer to advertisers. If people allowed their viewing habits and preferences to be shared, it could be possible to swap out the usual commercials with ones targeted to what you actually might be interested in hearing about and buying. Imagine replacing those frog-infested Bud Super Bowl commercials with ads for a new biography of Frederick the Great that you were waiting for, or a terrific apartment listing that just became available.
I want my IPTV!