Convergence. It's been the mantra of the electronics industry since the 1990s. But despite words of support from nearly every quarter, it remains elusive. Electronic devices that ought to be able to talk to each other stay stubbornly silent - or turn consumers into hardworking digital diplomats before they intercommunicate.
Video coming into your home via a television ought to be transferrable to a PC or any portable video device. Photos should travel easily and directly from camera to TV or printer then back to the computer or online. Those handy little flash-drive storage devices, such as the memory cards in digital cameras, should work in any camera or computer, not just one brand. Phones should transfer easily between landline, cellular, or Internet-based calls.
The promises keep coming. Consumers will "choose from a vast array of devices and services that work together seamlessly and suit the way they live," Microsoft chairman Bill Gates reaffirmed this month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. But even the leader of the digital world saw his media center lock up - twice - when he tried to demonstrate at the show how various devices could be controlled through a PC.
Last year, shoppers brought home armloads, make that trunk-loads, of electronics - digital cameras, portable MP3 music players, and high-tech TVs. Sales of consumer electronics rose nearly 11 percent to $113.5 billion and are projected to hit $127 billion for 2005.
As the number and variety of these digital gadgets mushroom, so will the demand for convergence. "The next wave of home network consumers is increasingly eager to share content among devices in the home," says Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for The NPD Group.
While PC users know all about finicky computer programs and fickle Internet connections, consumer products such as TVs and stereos, let alone refrigerators and toasters, are expected to work flawlessly and with a minimum of fuss. Brand names like Sony and Kodak raise expectations that the product will work easily and simply, experts say. If it doesn't, the brand could suffer.
Today's DVDs have that kind of flexibility: They'll play on any brand of player (unless you burn them at home, in which case you may run into problems with incompatible formats). But the next generation, rather than being more compatible, looks like a potential rerun of the Betamax vs. VHS videocassette player war of the 1980s, in which many consumers put money into the wrong product. This time it's Blu-ray discs vs. HD-DVD. Both video-storage discs offer more capacity than today's DVDs, allowing more extras and features, and will produce even sharper pictures when mated with a high-definition television set. HD-DVD is expected to hit the market first, by Christmas 2005. Warner Bros., Universal, HBO, and Paramount say they will release movies in HD-DVD. Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, and Sony Pictures are committed to Blu-ray. Manufacturers are trying to hedge until a winner emerges.
Another key convergence issue: How to let audio and video files travel freely between devices and still maintain digital rights and copyright protections for originators. Organizations such as the Digital Living Network Alliance, a consortium of consumer-electronics, computer, and mobile-phone companies, are trying to sort out the issues. One strategy is to allow products to use their own proprietary formats internally but insist that they have the ability to translate them into a common format for interconnection purposes - if copyright limits permit.