This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 3, 2006
The stereotype of Americans as slack-jawed morons stupefied from staring hour after hour at the blue light of a TV tube has, of late, been somewhat replaced by a stereotype of Americans as slack-jawed morons stupefied from staring hour after hour at the blue light of a computer monitor.
God help us should the two merge.
Of course, there have been attempts to meld the two with some success. Setting aside the world of console games, which merely use the TV as a monitor, we've had of late both WebTV and TV tuner cards for PCs. As early as the 1980s, Cox Cable was toying with an interactive service over its cable TV service you could, as I recall (my father signed us up as beta testers), play bridge and other games via a specialized set-box and controller.
Today, with Apple leading the way, many PC manufacturers now offer wide-screen cinematic style PC monitors up to 30-inches and more with unrivaled resolution for watching DVDs. Sony is now selling "media center" PCs designed to interface with your traditional stereo system and TV, and iTunes is now selling TV series episodes and movies as a download.
Somewhat suddenly, the whole idea of media convergence is coalescing very quickly.
The latest entry
One of the more imaginative applications seeking to merge TV and the PC is the Slingbox.
A sort of Tivo for your PC, Slingbox is a digital video recorder that takes your existing cable or satellite signal and redirects it to your PC or Mac. On the road and want to catch the latest episode of "Monk"? Comfy in bed and don't want to go in the other room to see "Two and a Half Men"?
With a Slingbox hooked up to your laptop, you don't have to.
Will it last?
The big question, though, is whether Hollywood will use legal means to try to shut down Slingbox. Michael Robertson's MP3.com offered a similar service for music lovers a few years ago called MyMP3.com. This online service allowed you to listen to your legally purchased music collection from anywhere you had broadband connectivity. You registered at MyMP3.com, and then inserted your CDs into your CD-ROM drive the MyMP3.com software checked to make sure they were legal copies and not pirated, and then added that title to your library.
But the Recording Industry Association of America found a judge who didn't exhibit much in the way of knowledge about technology or copyright law (or even Supreme Court precedent) to order MyMP3.com shut down as a violation of copyright even though the Supreme Court had earlier ruled that consumers have a legal right to make backups of soft materials such as tapes, records, books and CDs.
So it is very conceivable that Slingbox will find itself in the cross-hairs of the entertainment moguls.
Of course, just in the few years since the MyMP3.com decision, the legal landscape has changed. The RIAA has found itself repeatedly rebuffed by the courts in trying to have all file-sharing software declared illegal. And Tivo's ability to allow viewers to simply skip commercials has also been found legal by the court systems.
So, since Slingbox doesn't allow you to splice or share a cable or satellite signal, only to redirect it to your personal computer (meaning you can't watch TV in one room while your kid watches another channel on his PC not unless you're already paying your provider for two outlets), the courts may well find Slingbox to be a legal product.
In which case, Slingbox will either succeed or fail on its own merits. The company is already promising to release versions of Slingbox for PDAs and cell phones. Can a GameBoy or PSP version be far behind that?
Whether consumers want to stare at a small screen passively rather than reacting to it as we do while playing PC games or engaging with the Internet remains to be seen.
But with all the small portable DVD players out there on the market, there seems to be some demand for small screens.
If so, the long-predicted media convergence will have finally arrived.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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