Editorial: Convergence missed
By Maury Wright, Editor-at-Large - November 1, 2004
As we developed plans for this first global collaborative project, we knew that connected digital-media devices would be the thread connecting all of the content.
Indeed, for years, we’ve recognized the opportunity arising from the trend toward “convergence.” As the global network evolves to carry all types of digital media, manufacturers are shipping devices of all sizes, shapes, and capabilities to a receptive worldwide consumer base. Lately, however, I’ve noted some alarmist articles, in both the trade press and the major business publications, that miss the true impact of convergence, drawing terribly wrong conclusions about the future of the computer, consumer-electronics, and communication markets.
So, I’d like to set the record straight. Convergence is not a trend whereby all functions ultimately migrate to a single device, in the process eliminating the need for dozens of function-specific products. Rather, convergence is a trend whereby all smart devices connect to the same network and interoperate with one or more types of data (music, video, voice, photos, e-mail, and more).
Let’s consider a prime example: the mobile handset. Like me, you may have heard doomsday predictions that the mobile phone will wreak havoc on the electronics industry. The theory goes that mobile phones will usurp the functions of digital cameras, camcorders, digital-music players, and a dozen more devices to be named later. This situation will not only eliminate opportunities for chip vendors in the displaced specialty devices, but also result in razor-thin margins—or even losses—for the IC players that do succeed in mobile phones.
I’m not about to suggest that mobile phones won’t continue to evolve and work with content that flows across the converged network. Indeed, we’ve dedicated a portion of this special issue to mobile phones as prime examples of devices that require our readers to design to a global set of standards and user needs. But trust me here: Mobile phones aren’t about to eliminate the need for best-in-class specialty products. Furthermore, technology-transition points, such as the move to 3G cellular technology, will provide margin relief for players in leading-edge mobile handsets.
Consider the digital camera. An image sensor is fast becoming a standard feature in mobile phones, and the resolution of these sensors may soon hit 3 million pixels. But when I make it to the Great Wall of China —or for that matter, to my son’s next birthday party—I’ll have a digital camera in hand that embeds much more capability than a high-resolution sensor. I’ll surely want a true optical zoom with mechanical-lens components. In fact, as sensor resolution approaches what we had in the old 35-mm film cameras, I may just go back to a camera with interchangeable lenses.
Likewise, I may appreciate a phone that plays MP3 tunes when I’m not using it for voice calls. But you won’t find my family on a driving vacation without a hard-disk-equipped digital-music player. The MP3 player may displace the portable CD player in the same way that the CD player displaced the cassette Walkman. But the mobile phone is simply a convenient pinch hitter when it comes to music.
I believe that convergence ultimately produces more—not fewer—devices into which chip vendors can sell products. That said, all of these connected devices will face extreme price pressure. The mobile-phone ecosystem has set a bad example by subsidizing product cost, leading consumers to expect unrealistically low prices. I fear that this situation has not only hurt the entire industry, but also led us to the precipice of a quality disaster. But you’ll have to read “Adaptive engineering” to get the rest of that story.
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