Are we there yet? As an industry and market, we’ve been talking about converged lifestyles, in which all of your devices communicate and interact, since the ‘90s. For the most part, the road to convergence is littered with silicon and steel corpses. And while we’re not all the way to complete convergence yet, we’re close. So close you can feel it. What does convergence feel like? Click ahead and take a look.
Getting Smarter Every Year
We’ve recently detailed smart appliances and smart TVs. These are only two of the many “smart” device categories now gaining in popularity, although smartphones, tablets, and PCs (both desktop and laptop) remain the most prominent devices in the field. According to IDC, “unit shipments for smart connected devices should top 1.1 billion worldwide in 2012. By 2016, IDC predicts shipments will reach 1.84 billion units, more than double the 2011 figure.”
Just as TiVo popularized the idea of timeshifting (recording a TV program to disk for playback at a more convenient time), Sling Media gave us placeshifting (viewing a TV show at a more convenient place). The trapezoidal Slingbox intercepted the home theater’s coax feed, split it, and routed it via IP to whatever PC or compatible handheld the user pleased. Sling is now owned by EchoStar and incorporated into DISH Network products.
Remember when we talked about convergence corpses? Not all placeshifters enjoyed the Slingbox’s success. We remember models such as the HAVA Wireless HD, My IPTV Anywhere Deluxe, and Sony’s so-catchingly-named LocationFree Base Station. Sling didn’t have the most features. Sony had it beat on wireless connectivity and signal pass-through, plus the Sony name. Unfortunately, it also carried the Sony price ($100 more than the Slingbox AV). Sling won on simplicity and the all-important end-user experience.
The Digital Media Adapter
From the Slingbox, it’s a short hop to the digital media adapter, a device that sits between your PC and your TV, bringing your system’s multimedia to the living room. For those who don’t need to power (or cost) of a home theater PC, the DMA is a great choice. Current-gen models like the WD TV Live Hub not only pull content from your PC but also Internet-based media services and even your smartphone.
Perhaps it’s telling that once we hit the middle of the last decade, the more successful convergence devices started exhibiting more staying power. Foundational devices such as TiVo and the Slingbox haven’t died; they’ve just...adapted. A key addition to the TiVo platform was its Desktop software, which allowed the set-top to work as a DMA, including sending TV shows to a computer. Desktop Plus could also push content out to certain handheld devices.
With set-tops getting into the convergence game, it was no surprise when Microsoft and Sony moved to follow suit and add another layer of functionality onto their gaming entertainment consoles. Microsoft in particular has been very aggressive and forward-thinking. Check out its new SmartGlass initiative, which will make handheld devices into extensions of the Xbox platform — ironic given that the Xbox started out as a Media Center Extender for the PC.
Cloudy Prospects: Netflix Watch Instantly
Cloud-based services are increasingly important in the total convergence vision. Just as devices should be able to interoperate freely, content should be able to flow easily across a full spectrum of devices. Netflix has realized this pursuit brilliantly with its Watch Instantly service. In fact, the service has been a bit too successful, with publishers raising their streaming rates to compensate for lost DVD/Blu-ray revenue. Still, the trend toward streaming subscriptions now seems unstoppable.
Pogoplug’s Personal Cloud
These days, plenty of cloud storage services let you stream your files straight from the data center to whatever device you please. However, the cost for storage capacity can become significant beyond the first few free gigabytes. Pogoplug, available either as a PC-based sync/storage app or a stand-alone, USB/Gigabit-equipped box, gives you unlimited storage from your local drives, full Internet streaming to remote browsers, and no monthly fees. (Cloud storage beyond 5GB is fee-based.)
Media Glue: DLNA
With so many entertainment devices seeking to provide media throughout the home, it became clear that some standard was needed to ensure device compatibility. In 2003, Sony founded the non-profit Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA). Now based on Universal Plug and Play, DLNA supports server, renderer, and controller device profiles, allowing different device types to perform different functions. Over 230 DNLA Certified brands span everything from appliances to printers to applications.
According to ABI Research, more than 300 million DLNA devices may ship this year, up from 200 million in 2008. Most recently, DLNA started certifying software titles. Not only will this further aid consumers in sharing media, but DLNA Certified apps can help give non-certified hardware DLNA functionality. Windows Media Player 12 supports all DLNA functions, including the ability to “Play to” remote devices. Samsung’s AllShare software (see following) is another DLNA-certified product.
Wondering About Wi-Fi Direct
Most people love the convenience of Wi-Fi, but configuring devices through an access point can be problematic at times, and in many cases, there isn’t an available AP when you need one. Wi-Fi Direct allows any compliant device to use its Wi-Fi radio to become a “soft access point” and connect directly to other devices. Devices simply form an ad hoc network with the touch of a button, allowing easy data communication with no other infrastructure.
Wi-Fi Direct, Cont.
Earlier in 2012, there were already over 550 Wi-Fi Direct-compatible devices, and Android 4.0 natively supports the technology. With this, your phone and car (or TV or portable speakers) could play your music without hassling with Bluetooth. A camera, such as the compatible Samsung DV300F, could beam a Wi-Fi slideshow to your tablet. It’s an impressive technology that only needs more backing with innovative, engaging apps from software developers in order to go mainstream.
Samsung’s AllShare Play
Most consumers don’t care about the chips and protocols behind convergence. (Tom’s readers may be notable exceptions.) Rather, they care about how well a solution works and how easy it is to setup and operate. Taking that to heart, Samsung has been refining its AllShare Play platform for several years. AllShare Play lets users stream media content between compatible devices, most notably Samsung’s own PCs, tablets, smartphones, TVs, and digital cameras.
Samsung’s AllShare, Cont.
While AllShare Play has some semi-technical depth in its interface, basic setup and use is fairly simple. Mostly, it boils down to selecting content to share, picking a server device, and selecting a display target. While Samsung has ambitions to add fee-based AllShare services in the future, the software is currently free across the board. Samsung is also prying open the doors to compatibility with non-Samsung devices, although this may compromise some features.
AllShare Cast Dongle
In May, Samsung demonstrated its AllShare Cast Dongle, an HDMI adapter that takes whatever is being displayed on a wirelessly connected Galaxy S III phone to the attached monitor/TV. The Group Cast feature shares from one to multiple mirrored devices. Samsung is opening its AllShare APIs and SDK to third-party developers in the hope of getting non-Samsung devices and apps involved in the Samsung ecosystem...which should help sell more Samsung product overall.
ShareAll isn’t the only convergence platform around. One of the best alternatives is Plex. Originally an offshoot of the open source XBMC Media Center, Plex is a server/client platform for managing and distributing media, including services such as Netflix and Hulu, and various content channels across a wide range of devices. With Plex Media Server running on your Mac or PC, Plex clients can run on many Android, iOS, Roku, WinPhone, and other devices.
ArcSoft Link+ 3
ArcSoft Link+ 3 follows in Plex’s steps, allowing music, photos, and video to flow between devices all across the home network. If you don’t see a lot of promotion behind Link+, that’s because ArcSoft often sells the product to third-parties, such as system OEMs, who then reskin and brand the software as their own. Link+ 3 exploits DLNA to let every computing device on the LAN broadcast to every other DLNA-compatible device.
Better Than Original?
Convergence inevitably struggles with processing horsepower. If you play a standard-def video to a high-def TV, the stream needs to be interpolated and possibly shifted from one format into another (say, DivX to WMV). Such transcoding can swamp many systems. ArcSoft coded Link+ 3 specifically to use the Media Accelerator tech in AMD’s latest processors so that media could flow unimpeded. Look for hidden hardware support like this in your convergence apps.
Hopefully, we’ve shown enough of today’s convergence landscape to whet your appetite and leave you wanting more. The good news is that media convergence doesn’t have to be expensive, and sometimes it’s even free. But expect far, far better things tomorrow. If Microsoft’s Xbox 720 leak and Samsung’s ubiquitous glass vision are any indications, what we’ve seen so far is only the tip of the convergence iceberg. The best is yet to come.