Convergence – Yin and Yang in the Digital Age
By Bruce Cohen
This article started out as an attempt to explain to myself the meaning of Convergence. The term has so much currency these days amongst the digerati that I was beginning to feel left out because I couldn’t really put a handle on it and, like the White Rabbit, I hate, I hate being late to the digital party.
The problem I kept confronting was that while everyone was talking about Convergence, some sort of “coming together” of telecommunications, the Internet and digital media, all I was seeing was Divergence: lots of new devices like Blackberry and Moxie, wireless PDAs, Airbord, Playstation II and X-boxes; if anything, the digital landscape seemed to be fragmenting, rather than uniting as the Convergence gurus had promised.
Grappling with this contradiction late one evening, my insomnia forced me to the bookshelf, where I stumbled across a dusty copy of Fritjof Capra’s seminal work, “The Tao of Physics”.
Exploring the mysteries of the quantum universe, it struck me that, just as electrons can reveal themselves as either wave forms or particles – without any contradiction – the same idea could be at work in the digital world: it was both converging and diverging – it just depends from which angle you look at it.
So here’s my thesis: Convergence and Divergence are not polar opposites; they are both sides of the same coin, like Yin and Yang, inseparable aspects of the whole. Recognizing this results in a harmonized view of the digital world.
In concrete terms, what it means is that the digital universe is converging around two key processes, the transport of data and a common data structure, but at the same time it is diverging in terms of customer access windows/devices.
On the Convergence side, let’s call it the Yin side, we can see the process on a number of layers:
At the message layer, virtually all data will soon travel along packet-switched networks, be it voice, video, text or still images; this is IP Convergence, driven by the Internet Protocol (IP) and is the glue that sticks the whole Convergence puzzle together.
At the content layer, all data is increasingly being structured in a standard and intelligent way that enables it to be created once and interpreted simultaneously by multiple devices. This is Data Convergence and is driven primarily by the adoption of XML (Extensible Mark-up Language) which, to extend the puzzle metaphor, defines the shapes of the jig-saw pieces.
On the Yang side, the digital realm is diverging around the appliances being used to receive, transmit and share data; PCs, DTVs, mobile phones, game consoles, fridge doors etc.
The proliferation of these devices is nothing in itself; it is the ability of these devices to talk to one another and share data seamlessly, or obtain it from a single source – in other words their ability to exploit Convergence – that makes digital Divergence so valuable.
So it’s not surprising than that a company like Sony has announced a strategy centred around what it calls the “ubiquitous value network” in which gadgets will seamlessly communicate with each other, beaming back and forth music, movies, e-mail, stock market information and video and telephone conversations.
The relationship between these Yin and Yang forces is such that they can’t live without one another: without Convergence, you wouldn’t get Divergence (you would land up with silos of disconnected data). And without Divergence, you wouldn’t get Convergence (because there would be no need for device interoperability).
Device Divergence is driven primarily by customer needs and creative innovation. Products like Blackberry or the new integrated mobile phone/PDAs are examples of this. Bluetooth and other Wi-Fi solutions will ensure that diverging devices can more easily communicate. I have a notion that there is a lot of money to be made at the point where Yin collides with Yang.
It’s this Yin-Yang effect that is powering AOL’s “Anywhere” strategy of distributing services to any device the customer chooses, and enabling them to share data amongst devices e.g. sending and Instant message from a PC to a mobile phone which than forwards the same message as an SMS to an e-mail recipient.
This example of Unified Messaging, the Holy Grail of digital communication, is powered by converging data on diverging devices; it’s the harmonious result of Digital Yin-Yang.
Each diverging device has its unique advantages/disadvantages depending on the mode of usage (static/mobile), screen display and the type of data it has been optimized for (e.g. DTV is optimized for MPEG2 Video, mobile is optimized for SMS); but each device is increasingly capable of exchanging data with any other device because they are all capable of IP communication and can interpret XML data structures.
Data can now be created once in device-agnostic formats (XML), which can be transported over a common and efficient protocol (IP) and shared between appliances.
The Yin-Yang effect becomes increasingly important in the broadband arena. The key Convergence elements (XML and IP) along with the new “converging” video standard, MPEG4, creates all the conditions for a broadband environment where video and multimedia services can be streamed to any broadband-capable device from a single source. And if you add in the ultimate promise of wireless G3 bandwidth, than this includes video throughput to mobile devices too.
Convergence vs. Divergence? No, it’s really just a digital dance between data and devices.
Bruce Cohen is director of strategy at M-Web. He was a pioneer in online media in South Africa, and was instrumental in making the Mail & Guardian the first newspaper in Africa to publish on the Internet in the mid-90s.