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Convergence Through Desire

I'm sitting here in Spot Coffee looking out over the scene. I'm blogging from a coffee shop: I'm officially ... something. Not a geek, anymore, because convergence activities like logging on to the net though a coffee shop's hotspot are now officially mainstream and mundane, at least if you believe that TV reflects reality.

Which is my point, as I remind myself not to bury my lede: Convergences that actually lead somewhere tend to come not from planning toward goals, but from the accidental confluence of opportunity with desire. As a case in point, consider the Archos PMA 400.

This whole coffee-house laptop thing... how did I miss out? It was a matter of not having converged the right equipment. I've puttered at doing this for a long time -- my friend Pete's laundromat even has a hotspot -- but have tended to feel a little sour-grapish over the whole deal, since my equipment has made it a challenge: My laptop has a tiny keyboard (I've gotten used to that) and a small, dim screen; if I brightened the screen to make it readable, the battery life was relatively poor. Battery life already suffered because with only 128MB of memory, the laptop was constantly thrashing the hard drive to swap in and out of RAM. And I always seemed to have problems connecting to the WiFi hotspots.

Well, thanks to eBay I now have a bigger, stronger battery and another 128MB of RAM (both a third of less of last years's price), with updated software for my WiFi card, and I'm blogging from a coffee shop. I've leapt squarely and soundly into 1999. Or something like that.

Which brings me, roundabout, to my point. This was really a convergence issue. It was always an high-status behavior, hooking up to the net from open hot spots, but like most high-status activities, not many people really did it. Which is, of course, what's made it a high-status behavior, at a certain level.

Well, now the barriers to entry are much lower: Most open networks don't charge for connections (at least not at the moment), which we can chalk up to the proliferation of cheap bandwidth. (That will change, but we've got tons of dark fiber out there still going unused.) Good quality portable computing hardware is cheaper and lighter, and the social acceptability of hauling out a laptop has increased; now it seems relatively benign next to loud mobile-phone conversations. Networked communication from a hotspot has become easy and cheap enough that lots of people can do it, bit it still hasn't outgrown its chic-factor. (And it will be slow to do so, by the way, due to latent education factors -- but that's another story for another time.)

This is the crux of it, I think: Convergence will only happen below a certain fairly low price-point, and will be driven by desire, not by need. Blogging got big when it broke $10/month (or thereabouts), and nobody really needs to blog; WiFi got big when it got free and you didn't have to buy a card for your laptop. And of course, nobody really needs to network from a coffee shop.

Convergence devices like wireless handhelds will break through, too, and soon. It will happen when you can buy the device at little (or no) additional cost over what you would have spent anyway: It happen when you can get a thing that you wanted for some completely other purpose, and have it bring along wireless connectivity or email or word-processing as a bonus.

My thoughts turned to this train a few days ago when Gizmodo posted a note from CES about the new "convergence device" from Archos, their "Personal Media Assistant [PMA] 400" -- a Linux-based variation on their AV400 "pocket video recorder". It's a toy calculated to make geeks salivate, hitting almost all of the key requirements for a high-end PDA (color screen, built-in 802.11g wireless, color, browsing and email capability) along with one thing that no conventional PDA has, yet: a 30GB hard drive.

And the best part, from Archos's perspective, is that most of this capability would be there whether they wanted to make this thing into a PDA or not. Because it's not primarily a PDA. It's primarily a multimedia time-shifting device, a la TiVO, but without many of TiVO's restrictions. It includes WiFi because WiFi would make it easier to integrate into 802.11g-based home multimedia networks, not because it would make it a killer toy for the coffee shops set. And yet, that's what it will be.

There have been lots of chances for convergence, and they've mostly appeared to founder on the cost of mass storage or on battery life. Well, mass storage is now absurdly cheap; and low-power components have met improved batteries halfway to more or less solve the power problem. And battery life shouldn't have been an inhibitor to convergence for the most likely candidates, the game platforms. Any NES or PS2 or GameCube has much more computing power than most PCs, at a much lower cost. Why not hook them up to hard drives and keyboards and have a computer? Why, indeed; it's a mystery. So, here we have a device (a multimedia time-shifter) that's basically a general purpose computer; and contrary to the usual trend, its makers decide to go the distance and make it, of all things, a general purpose computer. Why should this be different from the miss-starts from Sony or Nintendo?

Perhaps because this one is personal; perhaps because this one is "adult." Games are still socially marked as "juvenile", even though the majority of players are adult. But music, TV, movies: Those are adult past-times.

There have been lots of attempts to make a "computer for the masses." They've ranged from the geeks-only Sinclair 100, back in the dawn of the personal computing era, to more recent efforts driven by Microsoft and others. Perhaps the most radical attempt was the Simputer, which re-thought not only the user interfaces but the form factors and the assumptions about use.

The first commercial Simputers are nice, elegant device; but they're still too expensive, and don't come near addressing their designed audience. They're toys for well-off Indian technophiles, not the village computer they were designed to be. The PMA400 is in many ways much like a Simputer with a hard-drive and with much less noble goals. This device isn't intended to bring computing to the masses; it's intended to bring this week's "Survivor" or "ER" or "Six Feet Under" to the departure lounge. It didn't come from any high and noble goals. Instead, it came from a desire to be entertained.

And yet, the PMA400 has everything, literally everything, that's needed in a basic -- and even a bit more than basic -- personal computer. It's networked; it's based on an open platform with standard and open APIs, so there's already a lot of software that will run on it; it's got (LOTS of) mass storage; it can take keyboard (and presumably mouse) input; it can accept removable mass storage. It can probably even be hooked up to a printer via USB.

I don't have any illusion that Archos will make a huge success out of this; that's just not in their corporate DNA. But this device can be the model for the true "people's PC" that IBM, Microsoft, and others have been jousting at for years. The question is whether a company as clever as, say, HP or Creative Labs or Nintendo can be clever enough to see the opportunity and seize it. Don't look to Apple or Sony or Microsoft for this device by the way: They have a vested interest in keeping the personal computing devices big, relatively costly, and relatively non-convergent.

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