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Digital dreaming

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper writes that stuffing a bunch of existing technologies into a computer box won't go down in history as the last word in digital convergence.

This week's Media Center debut was the occasion for some marketing wizards to proclaim the start of the next era of computing.

The general pitch was that computers and consumer electronics are coming together around a specially designed version of Windows XP, and you now can do amazingly cool things with digital media that people yesterday could only dream about.

But before heading out to the malls this weekend, it's worth asking whether the industry is again over-reaching.

The idea that the personal computer is destined to find its rightful way into the living room by merging with a consumer electronics device--be it a television console, a stereo system or some other appliance-- is not new. In fact, the pursuit of integrated, simple and convenient digital entertainment has been one of the technology industry's more enduring grails.

Companies still insisted on rushing out kludgy products that had interfaces that ranged from the barely adequate to the spectacularly lousy.
Bill Gates has been preaching about digital convergence since the 1980s. The scenarios have always fallen short of the promise, because the cross-breeding experiments proved tougher to carry out in practice. Unfortunately, companies still insisted on rushing out kludgy products that had interfaces that ranged from the barely adequate to the spectacularly lousy.

There's nothing revolutionary about using a computer to pause and rewind radio broadcasts, edit and print photos, or rip CDs onto a hard drive. Same goes for using a remote control to play a game on a computer. To be fair, the Media Center software marks the first time Microsoft has recast a version of its Windows operating system with digital media entertainment specifically in mind.

Microsoft also has had to rethink its assumptions about who would buy this stuff. A year ago, the company thought the idea would take root with the college set and twenty-somethings. Instead, Microsoft found the typical owner to be in his 40s. Lining up partners like Dell will help force down prices to within easier reach. But this is part of the natural evolution of things--and hardly the revolution some of the more breathless claims would have you believe.

The bigger question is why it's taken so long for somebody to come up with a first-rate solution. Apple's had some success with Steve Jobs' digital hub strategy. But PC companies generally have been slow to get serious about convergence.

Same goes for the consumer electronics industry--though I'm sure that one day, a company like Sony will come out with an easy-to-use CD device that's equipped with a huge internal hard drive to allow music ripping and the easy transfer and storage of your collection. Sonicblue and Hewlett-Packard offered something of the sort in years past. But their entries never went far, because they were pricey and relatively difficult to use.

Good luck to them, but the buying public's not as dumb as some folks assume.
Is convergence the future? You bet. But any armchair bloviator (that is, one who bloviates) can offer that prediction. With companies mastering the logistics of assembling reliable products at a very low cost, more PC technology will surely wind up embedded in other devices. At the same time, the television is being reinvented, and there's going to be a huge opportunity with mobile wireless technology. Digits are digits, after all.

The hard part is figuring out just how all this is going to come together. After two-plus blah years, the computer industry is starved for a big hit and desperate for something that will contribute to a bang-up fourth quarter. Now, the gong has been rung. More than 40 PC manufacturers plan to ship Media Center PCs (based on a special version of Microsoft's Windows XP), and you'll see and hear a lot of advertising between now and Dec. 31.

Good luck to them, but I think they'll find that the buying public's not as dumb as some folks assume. Stuffing a bunch of existing technologies into a computer box hardly classifies as the last word in convergence. Even wall-to-wall advertising can't change that reality.