Mark Ritson on branding: Media brands must diversify or die

What a week it has been for weird technology stories. It was hard to turn a page without being confronted by major developments. BT announced a £100m investment in BT Vision. Eventually it hopes that 30m people will tune into its broadband TV service, which will include Freeview channels, on-demand movies and Premiership football.

BSkyB has extended the trial of a US system that allows it to beam programmes directly to viewers' mobile phones. The technology, being tested in Manchester, could allow it to transmit 30 streaming channels of high-quality video across the UK.

Meanwhile, Britain's five mobile networks recently wrote to Ofcom seeking approval to form a consortium to create a single national mobile TV network. The group hopes to use channel 36, the part of the spectrum that is currently reserved for air-traffic control, for the broadcasts.

Finally, a story broke that Apple is likely to introduce two iPhones in the first quarter of 2007, possibly as early as January - one model a hybrid version of its current iPod Nano, the other including a touchscreen and keyboard to enable internet access.

TV broadcasters are becoming mobile operators; mobile operators and phone companies are becoming TV broadcasters. What on earth is going on?

The answer is convergence. For years, geeks and IT consultants have been fantasising - and blogging - about a fabled moment when all the technology categories would merge. Rather than use a camera, PDA, MP3 player, phone, TV and PC to take pictures, access the internet, TV, cable, music and email and make calls, a single device allows you to access everything. It seems 2007 will become the year in which convergence crosses from geek concept to customer reality - and marketers will be right in the middle of it.

Imagine if the FA Premiership, rugby's Heineken Cup, Netball UK Challenge Cup and Henley Regatta were suddenly merged into a single competition. It would not take long for some of the competing teams to disappear through an inability to compete on all fronts.

This is exactly what will happen with convergence: specialist brands that are incapable of diversifying gradually disappear or diminish. Farewell, therefore, to Psion, JVC, Canon, Blockbuster and ITV.

Next, our sporting super-league would witness co-operative gestures between some unlikely partners. Manchester United and Cambridge University would merge, for example. This is what we are seeing across the pre-convergence landscape. Sony and Ericsson already joined forces; Apple is in talks with Disney; BSkyB and Google have signed a deal. The whispers about a merger between BT and Vodafone continue to grow.

Consumers are lazy. They will usually prefer one brand to two, especially in the complex world of electronic media. Get ready for some intriguing match-offs as brands that have never done battle before suddenly find themselves head to head.

Five years ago Nokia just had to trounce Siemens and Motorola to deliver double-digit growth. Now it has to face Apple, Fox and Google. BT has the customer relationships. Apple has the coolest brand. BSkyB has the content and deep pockets. Microsoft is, well, Microsoft. Any of them could emerge triumphant in a market that promises untold profits to the victor.

So grab your popcorn and tune in via your current device of choice. This showdown will make the cola wars look like a game of Scrabble.

30 SECONDS ON ... BT VISION

- Launched last week, BT's IPTV service promises the existing Freeview TV and digital radio channels plus a variety of on-demand content and seven-day catch-up viewing. However, some of the extended services it has been promoting are not yet available.

- BT has struck content deals with a number of big-name distributors, including DreamWorks, Sony BMG, Universal, Warner Bros, Disney and Paramount.

- BT Vision Sport will, from next season, show full FA Premiership matches 'near live', sharing the rights with BSkyB. It will also be carrying Setanta Sports from next summer, adding 46 live Premiership matches to its line-up.

- The BT Vision set-top box, which it calls the V-Box, is similar to the Sky+ box; users can pause and rewind live TV, and its digital recording facility allows the user to record up to 80 hours of Freeview programming.

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