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We at Connected Home Magazine pay a lot of attention to digital convergence because various digital and networking technologies are converging at an ever-quicker rate. Today's convergence themes are far more exciting than anything that the industry anticipated at the dawn of the PC revolution. (Readers who remember IBM's unfortunate PS/1 ads featuring a housewife accessing recipes from her kitchen-based PC know what I'm talking about.) And nothing is more exciting today than the ability to take technology with you.
Technology users have a relatively newfound ability to be online in a variety of locations, usually wirelessly, and to access digital photos, movies, and music in the car, on an airplane, or over the Internet from anywhere in the world. We might eventually see the ability to decouple experiences from specific locations as technology's greatest gift. Here's how the convergence happened, and what you can do to take advantage of this gift.
In the past, you had to access any information you stored on a computer from the same computer, unless you could print out the information (although even then, the information was in static, read-only form). Online connectivity, even at relatively slow modem speeds, and early removable media formats such as the floppy disk enabled information transfer between computer systems, leading to Sun Microsystems' prescient slogan, "The Network is the Computer." Without outside connectivity, a PC is simply an island of functionality--useful, but not truly compelling to most people.
Later, multimedia-capable storage formats, such as CD-ROM, and the Internet brought about a much-needed change in the focus of most PCs. Before these two innovations took off, most people viewed PCs as office-bound workhorses, good for editing documents, balancing checkbooks, and maybe playing games. But the public eventually saw PCs as the ultimate in versatility, and today's machines bear little resemblance to their limited predecessors. By the early 2000s, PCs had evolved into connected, multimedia powerhouses with blazingly fast processors, seemingly endless supplies of RAM and hard disk space, and capabilities that we could only have dreamed of when we were pecking away at Commodore 64s and Apple IIs in the early 1980s. Most important, many PCs are often hooked up to the Internet, and thus the rest of the planet, by way of an always-on, high-speed connection.
The next step was mobility, a feature that has historically involved numerous trade-offs. But with a modern laptop computer, you can move around the house and access a high-speed connection wirelessly, using a system that's every bit as fast as all but the most advanced desktop computer. Wireless systems are more expensive than desktop PCs but offer much more functionality in form factors that achieve lengthy battery life, brilliant built-in displays, and every connectivity option imaginable. More locations such as airports and coffee shops are offering cheap wireless access, so by taking advantage of that access or by using a standard dial-up account, you can be online almost anywhere in the United States.
Laptops enable travelers to take all their data, including music files and photos, on the road. I travel fairly often and take along a system that lets me play DVD movies, write articles, manage my contacts, or plan my schedule. This laptop contains every digital photo I've ever taken and every music file I've ever copied from an audio CD. I can use the system to rip or create audio CDs, edit digital video, or burn DVD movies when it's connected to a FireWire-based DVD-RW drive at home. In many ways, the system makes my entire life available almost instantly whenever I travel.
For even quicker access to scheduling and contact information, I use a Pocket PC device, although many Palm OS-based solutions would suffice as well. Pocket PCs make excellent electronic-book readers too, and I've read several classics recently in this format, including "Dracula," "The Time Machine," and a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories. Add an expansion memory card, such as the 256MB CompactFlash (CF) card I use, and the Pocket PC is an excellent audio music player as well. And future Pocket PCs will evolve into SmartPhone devices, combining the functionality of PDAs and cell phones.
If you're a music enthusiast, a dedicated digital audio player lets you take your entire music collection on the road in an extremely portable format. I use an Apple iPod for portable music, and although its 5GB of storage space isn't enough to hold all my music, it's big enough to store almost 1000 songs--not bad for a stylish package no larger than a deck of playing cards. And you can use iPod and other hard disk-based media players in the car by using an inexpensive cassette tape- or FM radio-based adapter. My family takes several long car trips a year, and I wouldn't leave home without the iPod.
If you decide to make your next PC a laptop, I have a final bit of advice for you. Take it on vacation. Not so you can work; instead, use the laptop to acquire images from your digital camera. Your laptop can let you share photos and memories over the Internet while you're still on the road. You can also use a laptop to acquire video from your digital camcorder and post short clips to the Web while you're gone, letting friends and family know what they're missing. You can access and update your personal Web site and detail how your trip is going. If you're not interested in carting a laptop around on vacation, companies such as Hewlett-Packard (HP) make portable photo printers that let you print 4" x 6" photographs directly from your digital camera. Then, you can use an inexpensive postcard maker kit, available at photo stores, to make personalized postcards to send friends and relatives. Store-bought postcards seem tacky by comparison.
The move to digital media won't limit your family to crowding around the PC to view photos and movies or listen to music. Instead, the technology will expand the ways in which you can experience and share these memories. So take technology on the road and have some fun with it. You don't need to sit at a desk in an office to take advantage of the digital convergence.