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The New Face of Convergence

Consumer needs — not manufacturer designs — might be the driving force. Before I started writing for this publication, which dates back to when AOL was competing with the Web, I bought what I thought would be my last analogue stereo receiver/amplifier. It took in most input devices and pushed great sound through my colossal speakers. It was a dream system for every child of the ’60s. Since then I’ve collected CDs like I used to collect baseball cards so I can enjoy whatever music I want whenever I want.

I thought at that time that music, indeed all entertainment, would eventually be recorded, mastered, and delivered by computers. So I expected that I would replace this system with some convergence of entertainment and computer systems when it finally wore out. I must confess, I never dreamed of what an iPod could eventually deliver. I thought that convergence would look something like what HP tried to sell recently with marginal success–The Media Center PC.

It turns out that I was wrong about the Media Center PC concept. When my amplifier finally stopped producing good sound, I went out and got a new one that did roughly the same thing for less than I paid for my used amp in the early 90s. I needed it because I have all these input devices–CD/DVD player, tape player, TV/cable, even a VCR, that are all hooked up to my colossal speakers and the cheapest and easiest solution was just to replace the hub.

I could have replaced this whole set-up with an iPod, and a cradle with some tiny speakers that deliver great sound. But my entertainment center would look like an old empty warehouse with one little storefront doing business in the corner. Besides, I like my colossal speakers. They are monuments to all the air-guitar jams I’ve ever had in my living room. And iPods are fine for music, but I needed something for TV and DVD feeds. So, I replaced the receiver with a Sony amp that is as close to identical to my old one as Best Buy carries.

Unfortunately, in my first attempt. I failed to match the impedance, or Ohm rating, on the back of my speakers to my new amp. I bought a 6-Ohm amp and my speakers required an 8-Ohm amp. This caused lots of static. After hours of tinkering that took me well beyond the 30 days I had to return the amp, I discovered the problem and bought a Yamaha amp that can be switched between 6 and 8 Ohms. It was twice the price, but it was more than twice the value. Fortunately, I was able to upgrade my garage stereo, which has even older and larger speakers, with the Sony amp. So it’s all good.

Anyway, the Yamaha amp has more inputs than I can possibly use, including fiber channel inputs for the DVD player. The best part is a programming interface that lets me match the output to my speaker configuration. If at some point I add a subwoofer or get surround-sound speakers for channel B, I can easily switch the output to take advantage of the configuration. In short, the amp has either analogue or digital output that is programmable in every conceivable configuration. It takes all the things you need to program from a Media Center PC in one single ASIC and delivers it with the best sound I’ve ever heard in any high-end stereo shop–all for less than $200.

While we were spending countless reams of paper and thousands of gallons of ink covering the economies of scale that allow the PC industry to sell computers for less than the cost of the parts, the audio entertainment industry has not been idle. It too has innovated to produce inexpensive components that exceed consumers’ needs for a fraction of the cost of the state of the art 10 years ago. For this reason alone, I do not foresee ever using a PC to replace my amplifier. I’ll just add more inputs to my killer amp, like satellite radio and an iPod cradle.

While I was recreating with my sweet stereo, I started getting competing offers from my cable and phone companies to single source my phone, Internet, and TV service. This kind of convergence has long been prophesied, but this is the first time it’s been offered in my geography.

I had cable Internet and TV for many years and could have layered Vonage Internet phone service on top of that service for my phone. But I work from home, and the cable companies that I have dealt with have not had the tech savvy to do sufficient server work for the 99.9 percent uptime that I need. And they outsourced their tech support not to India, but to phone service bots that have caused my usually even temper to boil over on more than one occasion. Besides, Internet phone service often drops, and the quality is not yet ready for prime time–at least not for conference calls with executives.

So I changed to DSL and I stuck with our phone service from a local exchange carrier. The advantages to this solution include real humans answering the phone and real humans coming to my house, or to the local box down the street that processes my DSL packets. Since Internet is first and foremost in my house, any convergence of Internet, phone, and TV would need to come through my local telephone provider. Because the phone service’s twisted pair is so slender, I assumed that I was stuck with my cable provider no matter how much they charged or no matter how poor the quality of local TV reception, unless I wanted to abandon the possibility of convergence and go with satellite.

So when my phone company offered HDTV over the same connection as my DSL Internet service for a fraction of the cost of cable, I jumped at the chance, though not without reservations. While many of my blogging companions have combined Internet, phone, and cable bills exceeding $200 per month, not counting cell minutes, I now pay less than $100. I don’t get all the channels I had with cable, but I get all the channels I need. And some of the convergence features are pretty cool, like caller ID windows that show up on your TV when someone calls. Or call logs with which I can access and manage my calls on screen with my TV remote.

I had long predicted that cable companies would win the war to convergence because they had the infrastructure–the fat pipes–to handle the data. But I was wrong. It turns out the more important factor is server savvy, and phone companies are laden with this talent, whereas cable companies are not. So it seems phone companies are winning the race to convergence. So far it matters not that this service is over a twisted copper pair rather than coaxial cable with fiber to the home.

And though the TV comes through my DSL service, I get to pipe it through my killer amp, which is just a souped-up version of the amps we used as status symbols in our youth. I still have a computer in my entertainment center, it’s just not a PC like I expected it would be. It’s a computer designed specifically for entertainment needs. And that works for me.

James Mathewson writes Outfitter bimonthly for ComputerUser. He is editor at large for ComputerUser and a technical knowledge offering manager for the IBM PartnerWorld Web sites.

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