Guest Commentary: Curse of the clock radio

Mar 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The clock radio has done more damage to the television industry than all the government agencies and Wall Street investment bankers combined.
The success of the ubiquitous clock radio has convinced thousands of otherwise rational people that the future belongs to a concept called “convergence.”
If the clock can combine with the radio to produce a useful device, then what might happen if entire industries were to converge?
* When television was introduced the pundits thought that print media would converge with TV. You would print out newspapers and magazines from the TV set in your living room, eliminating both the printing press and the post office.
* When the personal computer was introduced, the pundits naturally assumed that it would converge with television. “Don’t worry about the difference between the TV set and the PC,” Nicholas Negroponte, the distinguished founder of MIT’s Media Laboratory, said in 1995. In the future, “There will be no distinction between the two.” (How many more years do we have to wait, Mr. Negroponte?)

* When the Internet was introduced, the powers-that-be figured that it had to converge with television. And so the cry went up: Interactive TV, the wave of the future.
Some wave. In 1997, Microsoft bought WebTV Networks for $425 million. It has since poured more than half a billion dollars into the venture with dismal results.
In 1999, Microsoft pumped $5 billion into AT&T and secured a contract to install its TV software in as many as 10 million set-top boxes. So far not a single box has made it to the top of a television set.
Microsoft then moved onto something called “Ultimate TV,” a typical convergence product. You can send e-mail and chat online while watching TV as well as pause and replay live television. It’s like TiVo on steroids.
Is there a market for these kinds of convergence devices?
Sure, but the market is thin. Unlikely to make it into the mainstream. (Think Hummer. Owners love them, but how many people are going to buy them?)
Another Dumb Idea
Microsoft has since shifted its attention to another dumb idea, the interactive wristwatch. In spite of all the failures, why is it that so many normal people are still fascinated by the concept of convergence?
In industry after industry, product development people think, “What two devices can we put together” instead of, “What new device can we create that will represent a new category?”
If we manufactured TV sets, the last thing we would do is to try to incorporate TiVo or Replay into our products. Instead we would be working on HDTV or plasma screens or some other new category.
Convergence thinking can lead to massive mistakes. When Steve Case was CEO of America Online, according to The New York Times, “He called Mr. Levin [Gerald Levin, CEO of Time Warner] to describe a future in which the media and Internet seem increasingly likely to converge-as the personal computer, the television and the telephone become parallel digital pathways to new types of information and entertainment services.”
“My motivation is to position this company to capitalize on the era of convergence,” Mr. Case explained. Some motivation.
USA Today called interactive television “The Holy Grail for AOL Time Warner. It will eventually enable TV viewers to communicate, shop, play games, call up information and order news and entertainment on demand from the TV screen.” (It might be churlish of us to point out that in more than 2,000 years they have never found the Holy Grail.)
While convergence gets all the attention in the media, the real action is in the opposite direction … divergence.
Radio used to be just radio. Today we have AM radio and FM radio. We also have portable radios, car radios, headset radios, clock radios, cable radio and satellite radio. Radio didn’t combine with another medium. It diverged.
Television used to be just television. Today we have broadcast TV, cable TV, satellite TV, pay-per-view TV. Even airport television and taxi television. Television didn’t combine with another medium. It diverged.
The telephone use to be just the telephone. Today we have regular telephones, cordless telephones, car phones, cellphones and satellite phones. Also analog and digital phones. The telephone didn’t combine with another medium, it diverged.
The computer used to be just a computer. Today we have mainframe computers, midrange computers, mini-computers, network computers, personal computers, notebook computers and handheld computers. The computer didn’t combine with another technology. It diverged.
What’s ahead for the television industry? More divergence, of course. n
Al Ries and his daughter and partner Laura Ries are the authors of “The Curse of Convergence and the Dawn of Divergence,” which will be published later this year by HarperCollins.