Andrew Walmsley on digital: Wi-Fi will lead a convergent future

During the dotcom boom in 2000, convergence was the talk of the town. The phenomenon mainly appeared to manifest itself in strange marriages of media, and many companies built around it were doomed to failure.

The CueCat was a barcode scanner that enabled users to link to a website from a print article - a million of these gizmos were given away in the US, and the company made money from charging websites for the traffic it drove. Another system, WebTV, allowed people to surf the web on their TV - really slowly, and to the great irritation of everyone else in the house. Microsoft bought the company for an estimated $500m.

The problem with these gadgets was that the consumer gained no real benefit from them. Web TV was clunky, slow and many websites did not display properly, while the CueCat was simply more trouble than it was worth, even if you happened to have a computer nearby when you were reading a magazine.

But convergence is back, and this time it is working on a much more profound level and is set to change the way we use much of the technology around us - from our TV to the humble washing machine.

Bonkers stuff still appears from time to time - Fridge TV, for example - but, with a few exceptions such as cameraphones, the merging of devices is not what is significant about convergence.

The real significance lies in what goes on behind the scenes. A few years ago, the media ecosystem comprised disparate media - TV, radio, newspapers. These rarely overlapped, either in the way they were consumed or the way in which they were delivered, and while you might have listened to the radio while reading the paper, any synergies between them were at the executional level - a magazine spin-off of a TV programme, or a radio show moving to TV.

Now, however, the internet is bringing these together. TV is being delivered over the internet - to set-top boxes, PCs, mobile phones and iPods, and 4% of radio listening is now online. Digital editions of newspapers are available on their websites, and even outdoor media are increasingly digital - Viacom is adding 2000 projectors and LCD screens to the London Underground network over the next couple of years.

CD sales are slowing as downloads grow in popularity and DVDs will follow as these forms of content become available online, accessible through a variety of devices. We can watch TV on a mobile phone, download music to a PC, use a PC as a video recorder - all of these are windows into a digital world.

Most of this, though, uses either wires or mobile phone networks to get the internet to the user, and this has constrained the flexibility, cost and ease with which the service can be delivered. But this year, about 1.5m Wi-Fi routers will be sold, mostly into the domestic market, and this is going to result in another step-change in the pervasiveness of the internet.

Within the next few years, central-heating systems, burglar alarms, lights and washing machines will commonly be connected to the internet. Until now, the cost of doing this was too great, but with Wi-Fi chips now costing pennies, it becomes a simple matter to integrate these devices into the network - allowing you to control them and monitor their performance via a web browser.

Sceptics might say that this is just an example of technology without a use. While there will undoubtedly be more bonkers devices, the significance of a network that reaches into every device inside and outside of the home will enable the development of features and services we can't yet even conceive.

Over the next few years, the distribution and consumption of TV, movies and music will change fundamentally as the internet moves in underneath them. But the shift of media to being underpinned by the internet will be just the tip of the iceberg.

- Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level


- LG's digital multimedia side-by-side fridge-freezer with LCD display is available for £5469 online.

- The state-of-the-art fridge freezer enables consumers to watch TV, listen to music or surf the internet.

- It has a built-in MP3 player for downloading and playing music from the web as well as email and video mail using a built-in camera and microphone.

- Its full internet access allows owners to shop online in order to re-stock the refrigerator or check the latest news and weather.

- Owners access all services via a tilting, pull-out 15.1in touch-screen.

- Other features include an electronic calendar, food storage-time tracking system, electronic nutritional fact file, as well as a phone number management system and recipes.

- It also has a 506 litre capacity fridge and 310 litre capacity freezer, with an electronic temperature-control system that cools each compartment evenly.


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