Debate: Will Web and Television Converge?

Moderator: Matt Franklin
Brad Johanson Bryn Forbes
Richard Salvador Jin Hian Lee

Debate Framework

When we talk of convergence between computers and television, we need to be careful to specify what we mean.  In the case of this debate, we specifically mean the convergence of television and computers, both the media and the devices.  To that end the debate will center around two main issues:
  1. Computers and Televisions will be able to display the same media:
  2. The unique thing about television is that television is both a medium and a transmission system.  That is to say that television is used to refer to the screen that you watch, as well as what you see on that screen.  The Internet on the other hand is a system for transmitting bits, and is different from the device which receives those bits, the computer.  For this debate we will consider the content of the Internet to be primarily World Wide Web style content and an extension thereof.  In other words, you will have multimedia pages with dynamic content including audio and video clips.

    So, when we say that the media will converge, we mean that current television shows will merge into a hybrid with World Wide Web style content.  Television shows will have other types of media like text merged into them, and World Wide Web pages will begin to be temporal entities that tell a story.  Another way of looking at this is that both your television and your computer will be running a similar super browser which will allow the same content to be viewed on both devices.  Also, to say that the two converge it is not enough to say that you will be able to watch television on your computer-- that merely means that television content is a sub-set of computer content and is already possible today.  For the two to truly converge the content that can be received by both devices should be the same.

    When we say that the media will not converge, we mean that television shows and world wide web content will remain distinct media forms, and that you will use your television for watching television shows, and your computer to view and browse web content.  While both media types may have evolved, they will remain different from one another.

  3. People will cease distinguishing between computers and televisions:
  4. The second topic for the debate will be that the computers and televisions as devices will merge.  In this case the argument is that sometime in the future there won't be "televisions" and "computers", but some new device that encapsulates the behavior of both.  This "viewer" will come in different sizes and shapes, but will be thought of as one item, just like little TVs and big TVs in people's minds are considered one type of device.  While you may be more inclined to use the "viewer" on your desk to browse the web, and the "viewer" in the home theater to watch movies, you would be willing to do either task on either device.  In other words, if you were at your desk working on a "viewer" and a friend called up telling you to check out a show, you would just switch the "viewer" to that show, rather than going into another room to find a "TV viewer".

    Non-convergence in this case is the argument that, while TVs may take on some computer-like functionality and vice versa, fundamentally the two will be thought of as different devices.  Doing research and browsing the web will be done on a computer, and watching shows and movies will be done on a television.

Finally, it is important to make one final point on the debate framework.  There are always extreme points in the adoption of technology.  Since there is no technical reason why a television can't have the same functionality as a computer, or vice versa, it is quite likely that both computer powered TVs and computers that can display television will be around in the future.  In fact even today the Gateway 2000 Destination series is a computer powered TV and computers can have TV boards and are able to watch television content.  There will certainly be some small number of people that adopt this technology.  On the other hand there will also be some people that will keep their 1968 television and just add a DTV decoder box.  Neither of these extremes are very interesting.

On account of this, the debate will center around what functionality the majority of televisions and computers will have, and what types of media will be broadcast for a majority of broadcast hours.  The main question we consider is whether televisions and computers will come to be more similar on average as time goes on, or whether they will evolve along mostly independent paths.

The Argument for Convergence

Media Convergence:

In order for the media to converge, two main things need to occur.  First, computers and televisions must be able to be content interchangeable.  That is, computers must be able to view and use television content, and televisions must be able to view and receieve Internet content.  Second, people must be sufficiently interested in being able to view the same content on both device to make implementation of this interoperability commercially viable.  The two are clearly interrelated, since the amount of interest in interoperability people have determines how much they are willing to pay for that functionality.
Before determining whether it is possible to make television and computers interoperable, we need a list of what sorts of content both can, or will be able to receive.  To start, here is a list of some of the content we might see on both the web and digital television in the future:

The Computer

It is easiest to first answer the question of whether a computer will be able to receive television content.  The types of content that are broadcast over television currently, and will continue to be broadcast if the two media do not converge, are audio/video streams.  Since the computer media already includes audio and video streams, it should be able to decode the streams with no extra equipment.  The possible exception to this is the addition of a tuner card to decode the analog signal into the digital stream, but this should be of marginal additional cost considering the cost of purchasing a computer.
So, a computer will be able to receive television content for little extra cost.  Since the cost difference between a machine with this capability and a machine without this capability will be low, even if there is little consumer interest in this, machines will still come with this capability.

The Television

The more difficult question is whether a television will be able to display world wide web content.  It is pretty clear that you can put enough hardware into a television to make it able to display the media that a computer can display.  Essentially you would need to add a reasonable sized hard disk, some memory, and a fairly fast general purpose processor.  How much would this add to the cost of the television?  I will guess at the prices of items six years from now if they are shipping in large quanties. The total additional cost to televisions shipping in quantity to make them fast enough to read computer content would then be about $50.

The question to answer now is whether the average consumer would be willing to pay $50 extra for this functionality.  If so, then broadcasters would be likely to merge the content, and manufacturers to include the extra functionality.

This is a difficult question to answer without actually trying out the system with a test group.  In the past interactive TV trials where more robust media and interactivity is included in the television have been a failure (ie. Time Warner's Orlando test-bed).  The difference now is that the new television screens will have sufficient resolution to display text based materials without being blurry and out of focus.  What specifically might people be interested in doing on these new improved systems?

There are many other possibilities including much enhanced travelogue, home improvement and cooking shows.  Is this worth $50 more in initial investment for the average consumer though?  If the TV is kept for 5 years, the cost is less than $1 per month, which seems like something any consumer would be willing to pay for this increased functionality.

So, if computers will be able to view television content, and people will be willing to pay for television that can display computer content, there is no reason that the two media will not converge.

Device Convergence

With the convergence of media, we expect the emergence of appliances that will be able to display some sort of standardized media format. These devices will most likely vary in size, intended placement (living room, kitchen, bedroom), and functionality, but will have the common capability of being able to interpret the given converged media format.

Since media will most likely converge to some sort of digital stream with packets of information embedded in it, these information appliances will be able to provide a richer environment for viewing and interaction.

This means that the television in the living room will no longer be just a television, but it will be an "information" appliance. In addition to being able to display video streams, it will also be able to present other types of information-web pages, on-line stock quotes, interactive city maps, virtual lectures, etc.-that are encapsulated in the media stream.

This type of scenario has several implications:

The Argument Against Convergence