The Myth of Computer/Television Synergy

It’s over. The - divorce will be final on December 9.

At the time of the marriage, I was a loyal AOL customer. I cut my online teeth with Bulletin Boards, so I already knew basic nettiquette when I joined AOL (so I did not pick up some of the habits that made “AOLer” into an online insult). When AOL made the internet available to its users and announced their unlimited-use pricing scheme, BBS’s quickly died out. AOL was not the cheapest game in town, but it provided good value for the money, included newsgroup access, and fought spammers relentlessly.

I wasn’t excited about the merger at the time it happened; the underlying concept, that somehow a cable/entertainment company and an online service could benefit each other, seemed off-key.

Reading the story linked above, I finally realized why (I’m slow, but I eventually get there).

The merger was founded on the idea that computers could become some sort of hybrid computer/television entertainment center. It’s not going to happen.

They both have screens. That’s the beginning and the end of the similarity.

It’s because they both have screens that businesses think that they can force the television into a computer (or, in the case of WebTV, force a sort-of pseudo computer into a television). But the idea confuses technology with psychology.

Persons relate to computers and televisions differently. Just listen to how we talk: We watch television; we use computers. Many times we watch television while we use computers. We don’t want to “watch” a television show or movie in a little box in the corner of the screen while we surf the web or read a blog in another little box in the same screen.

Indeed, sales and showrooms seem to indicate that persons want bigger and bigger televisions while netbooks and smartphones seem to indicate that they are willing to use smaller and smaller computers.

This is not to say I’ve never watched a television show or a movie on a computer; I’ve done so when there is no other alternative. Once, I even watched something on Hulu (okay, it was a rerun of last January’s U. S. Presidential Inauguration and I was looking for a quotation I thought I had heard in one of the speeches so I could blog about it–never found it though–and I had the television going at the same time).

My DVD player plays *.avi files. It explicity doesn’t guarantee to play them all, but it has played about half of the ones I’ve tested on it. If I can get an *.avi of any length to play on the DVD, I’m going to watch on the television.

In a way, the DVR does represent a merger of television and computers. After all, a DVR is basically a VCR with a hard drive instead of a tape.

The merger doesn’t exist in the psychology though; the persons I know who have DVRs relate to them the same way they used to relate to their VCRs. They view them as entertainment machines, not as computers that do entertainment stuff.

(Aside: I don’t have a DVR. In the VCR days, I learned that, if I recorded something, the likelihood that I would actually watch it was slightly less than the likelihood that AOL’s stock will ever again climb over $100.00 a share. My DVD player can record to DVD. I tested it. It works.)

Some years ago, there was a big hoop-la over the potential of “interactive television.” We have that now. But not how it was envisioned, with persons clicking on their remotes. No, for shows such as American Idol (which I was unfortunate enough to watch once), persons click on their cell phones to vote. Now that’s synergy. Pointless, but synergy.

I predict that the computer monitor and the television screen will never merge. The electronics have merged–meaning the methods for getting an image to a screen.

The psychology? No.

Afterthought: AOL waned because dialup waned. The only person I know who still has a paying AOL membership maintains it because her vacation cabin is too remote for broadband. AOL did nothing strategically or tactically wrong; broadband did to them what talkies did to silent movies.

If it were not for broadband, AOL might be spinning off Time-Warner, rather than vicey versey.

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