The prospect of telephones, TVs, and stereos serving the same functions by sharing access to many sources of information and entertainment is real.
Such information-sharing will allow such ``futuristic'' abilities as video calls and interactive television.
The world's communications tools are converging by taking on the decisionmaking and storage abilities of computers.
The idea has been amplified this year by some big business alliances. A few phone companies, for example, took stakes in cable companies, because cable can deliver more signals. And two cable networks made astronomical bids for Paramount Communications Inc., eager to access more programming.
In 1992, American consumers learned that their cable television could soon have 500 channels broadcasting to it. But that development was superseded this year by a drive to let people receive - and send - any content whenever they want, from news, to new movies, TV reruns, concerts, or a video of the neighborhood-league basketball team.
Selected data would be stored in thousands of computer systems in virtually every town, and people could access it from PCs or their ``smart'' TVs, stereos, and phones.
But the hype also hides a gnawing unease at many media and technology companies about their future.
Michael Dell, chairman of Dell Computer Corp., in Austin, Texas, warned that computermakers are ill-prepared to compete with telephone and TV networks.
``We don't know how to sell anything other than pieces, components,'' Mr. Dell says. ``We're not marketing accessible, relevant technology-based products.''
Although the technology behind such a network is workable, many social and economic questions remain.
``The problems that many of us talk about a lot now are less the technical ones,'' says Robert Lucky, vice president of applied research at Bellcore, of Livingston, N.J., which does research for regional telephone companies.
``We're really sure we can do the technology, But some of the real show-stoppers are things like copyrights, intellectual property rights, and universal access,'' he says.