By Ashley Highfield
Director of BBC New Media & Technology
Las Vegas was host to two annual shows last week: the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), and the Adult Entertainment Expo.
Hi-tech firms wheeled out big stars such as Tom Cruise at CES
Not difficult to tell respective attendees apart, but the nerds and knockers might be more joined at the hip than professionals from either industry would care to admit.
It's a well worn track that sees technological innovation reach the mainstream driven by the world of adult content: from the VHS player right through to Internet-TV, adult material has often been the content that establishes the viability of new technology business models.
And it was clear to me that mainstream content, from Hollywood movies to primetime TV shows is now seen as the key driver of the next wave of consumer spend, adoption and consumption within the technology industry.
Every self respecting technology player had their own entertainment star to wheel out.
We were treated to the alarming on-stage combination of Bill Gates and Justin Timberlake, and Sony's Howard Stringer looked decidedly uncomfortable sharing the auto-cue with Tom Hanks, especially as "Tom" amusingly refused to speak his allotted lines in a painfully scripted chat with "Howie".
Google co-founder Larry Page was joined by Robin Williams; and Intel wheeled out Tom Hanks (again, who joked he had been waiting back stage for three hours since his Sony gig), Danny DeVito, Tom Shadyac, and Brad Silberling as a kind of techno-trump-that gesture.
I was left with the feeling that the less comfortable the technology firm was with the entertainment industry, the more it felt it needed to over-compensate with A-list body count.
I also had a nagging feeling that convergence is more than putting your CEO on the same stage as movie stars.
For me, convergence is enabling any piece of content, from an e-mail to high definition video, to be viewed on any device, from mobile phone to 103" plasma TV, at any time of your choosing.
And as much as the three consumer electronics firms Microsoft, Sony, and Intel tried to convince us that this year's CES could have been strap-lined "Convergence - this time we mean it", I was left a little underwhelmed by the solutions proposed for moving all this downloaded video content from the 2ft PC experience to the 10ft TV one.
Many net firms are starting to offer video downloads
This, for me, would be real convergence. Making television and movies available over broadband to the PC is a critical step, but convergence only really happens when you complete the loop by moving your downloaded or streamed content from the PC in the study to the TV in the lounge, so you can sit back and watch it in comfort.
And the gap is more than 8ft. One senior Microsoft executive I spoke to described it as "the missing 10 yards of rail-road".
Google made a convincing show of the first part of the convergence equation - making a wide selection of audio/video content available on-demand, with the announcement of Google Video Store, offering a pay-per-download model for programmes from the likes of CBS and Sony BMG.
Whether the pay model for video on the net works versus subscription to a package of content in a similar manner to Sky, or whether the audience is so used to "free on the net" that only advertising funded services will prove successful, only time will tell.
Back to front
I wouldn't want to bet against Google. However, Google offered no solution to the second and trickier part of the convergence equation, namely how to get the video you've downloaded off the PC screen onto a TV.
That fell to the consumer electronics firms. Intel's solution to convergence was Viiv (rhyming with "skive"). Exactly what Viiv was, depended to whom I spoke on the Intel stand. It is clearly not a new chip. Nor is it a piece of software.
The best description is a set of standards to help bring on-demand, high definition video from the internet (preferably Intel's portal) into all parts of the home, wirelessly.
Console makers hope their gadgets will become media hubs
Hardware manufacturers wanting to put the all important Viiv moniker on their kit will also have to ensure that there is not a long delay when you switch the machine on. The clever new Viiv-branded hardware devices that pick up video from a central server in the home and distribute it to a TV screen are called, snappily, Digital Media Extenders (DMEs).
Great, except they don't work with live streamed TV, nor TV programmes protected with digital rights management, and therefore solve only half the problem.
Sony were showing another approach to convergence - another small box, similar to the SlingBox, a clever way of taking your TV signal from your cable or Sky box and sending it up to the web.
Then you can access your TV programmes from any PC in the world. Well, apart from this being the wrong way round in my book, a DME in reverse, it may also fly close to breaching either rights frameworks or even the broadcast act in the UK.
So, it fell to Microsoft to come up with the most compelling solution to convergence. The latest version of their Media Centre Edition (MCE) of Windows appears pretty much bug free now.
It is set to spread rapidly in 2006, now that most manufacturers, notably HP, are shipping MCE home media centres (attractive PCs with all the bells and whistles that look fine sitting next to your hi-fi in the lounge and have one or more digital TV tuners built in). So, you could just connect your TV directly to your home media centre, download video, and watch it.
Consumers face trouble moving TV around the screens they own
But if you want to keep the PC in the study, then Microsoft also had a solution to the missing 10 yards of railroad: enter the Xbox360 high definition (HD) version.
It runs both Xbox's gaming interface and the Windows Media Centre Edition, and it can, connected to a TV in the lounge, or the bedroom, pull HD video, including live, streamed, pre-downloaded, copy-protected, digital rights managed video from your PC onto your TV.
Hurrah, a Digital Media Extender in disguise. So, nerds' nirvana? Not quite. For a start, Sony reckon that only the forthcoming PlayStation3 will be "truly" hi-def. Further, on being pushed a bit, the techies on the Microsoft stand admitted that the Xbox360 didn't work terribly well wirelessly as an "extender" from the PC to the TV for high definition video, and that you'd be better off connecting your PC to your Xbox360 with? A cable.
So the converged home of the future still requires miles of computer cable? Fine if you're renovating your house, otherwise, a very expensive way of getting on-demand video around the place.
By the time Microsoft's impressive looking upgrade to windows - Vista - comes along in the Autumn, along with the next version of Windows Media Player, it may have got the wireless exchange of high definition video around the home working.
Convergence is coming, no doubt. But 2006 will be the year where video over the internet is complementary to our television viewing, as most of it will still be consumed on our PCs and laptops.
Once the last 10 yards of rail road is built, and I reckon we're looking at 2007, and we can watch our Broadband TV actually on our TV set, then that will be the point when Microsoft and co move from being complementary offers to becoming genuine competitors to Sky, NTL, and Freeview.