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Philip Burrowes

Recently, two international industry leaders revealed what they hoped would be their inroads to the domination of yet another market. Sony announced the PSX, which tacks on hard disk space, TV tuner (yawn), DVD burner, built-in ethernet capabilities and about $500, to a Playstation 2. Nokia in turn released the N-Gage, which encases a portable gaming console, radio (yawn), and MP3/.AAC music player, around a mobile phone for, well, about the price of a Nokia cell phone. Both products are the result of growing support for developing “digital hubs,” a trend that doesn’t show signs of stopping despite the absence of much successful implementation. Where before companies had seemed content to market several complementary or even slightly competing machines to disparate audiences, now they patch devices together to create Frankensteins of machines in the hope of, if not pleasing everyone, convincing us all to want even more things than we could really use.

Once wannabe thugs acted bemused by post-preppies and their PDAs, while they themselves hoarded platinum (colored) two-ways. Console geeks and computer nerds were constantly locked in debates over who has the better port of the FPS-du-jour. “Internet radio” did well until the recording industry made it financially prohibitive, at the same time it was monopolizing our actual dials. However, now phones masquerade as cameras. Digital photo cameras retain video recording capabilities. Digital video cameras effectively become hard drives for computer-based editing. With software like iChat A/V or MSN Messenger 6, those computers are promoted as telephony devices. “Innovation,” it seems, takes us full circle.

The financial appeal to businesses is obvious: tap two theretofore mutually exclusive markets, and all of a sudden you’re the leader in one market. For the consumer, however, the utility of these amalgams is not so clear. We were being told that it was important to have color cell phones before we knew we had black and white ones. Digital cameras, while exceedingly easy to use, remind us that most of our pictures are just as boring whether developed or downloaded. Firewire existed for years before the proliferation of DVD burners enabled a new generation of shoddy home movies. As for computerized video/telephony, the small percentage of people who are capable of using it are often reduced to searching online directories to find a stranger capable of connecting to.

Yet such endeavors press on, albeit with varying success. Alienware produces PCs dedicated to gaming, while Microsoft’s X-Box promised to bring the PC experience to the home console. Tablet PCs are simultaneously peripheral devices and computers in their own right. Gateway sells plasma screens as both TVs and monitors, while DVRs/PVRs are available for out-of-the-box (i.e. non-hacked) integration with computers.

Certainly we have had such integration before. Leaf through any Sharper Image catalog and you will find a host of ginchy-looking combo widgets. Or how about the legion of failed Apple initiatives that mirror the “novel” items of today: Pippin@World=X-Box, eMate=TabletPC, Macintosh TV=Windows Media Center? How about WebTV, the 64DD, Phillips’ CD-i; the list goes on and on. Does modernity’s long-standing commodification of the “cutting edge” suggest we’re not merely witnessing a series of scattered attempts at fabricating fads?

Quite simply, industry rivals are following each other already to these nascent markets despite lack of proof that they truly exist. Nintendo has a wireless add-on for the Gameboy Advance, and Sony’s portable device probably will too. Apple’s iPod has slowly been moving into PDA territory with each iteration, and already comes in a customized version for cars. Dell is muscling in on Gateway’s non-computer consumer items. Will this new drive toward technological convergence have any profound effect on our non-digital life? Look no further than something as mundane as floss; Aquafresh is currently promoting the Floss ‘n’ Cap, i.e. a tube of toothpaste with floss attached. It would be a stretch to say the developments are related, but the underlying result is the same. Grafting more capabilities into a smaller area might be great for space, but it ultimately does little to make our lives easier. Sometimes, it may make our lives more burdensome. Just as you might not want to throw away a Floss ’n’ Cap if your toothpaste runs out but your floss doesn’t, what do you do when one component of the digital hub reaches obsolescence -- your PSX won’t play “PS3” games -- while the others remain functional?

Unless, you know, you’re into circumventing Digital Rights Management, ’cause that’s pretty cool.