Definition

technological convergence

Contributor(s): Garry Kranz and Margaret Jones

Technological convergence is a term that describes the layers of abstraction that enable different technologies to interoperate efficiently as a converged system. From a practical standpoint, technological convergence encompasses two interdependent areas: technical design and functionality. Technical design is occupied with engineering the underlying infrastructure needed to transport digital content. Functionality refers to the ease of use with which a user can access the same content on various devices. The functional aspects spring from the efficiency of the technical engineering.

As a feature of society, convergence can spur economic growth and change how people communicate on a global basis. This provides a number of conveniences but also introduces new concerns involving cybersecurity, data privacy, identity theft and terrorism.

Converging technology fields

A good way to evaluate the importance of converging technologies is to consider innovations from previous generations. Items such as a CD player, cassette deck, console TV or corded telephone each served only one function, whereas a single modern handheld computing device can meld several of those functions, with hardly any user intervention required.

For example, people who aren't computer-literate are more likely to embrace the internet and video on demand if they are able to access these technologies through their televisions. In general, TV is familiar and nonthreatening. Displays are large, and TVs are easy to operate. Using them to access the web requires almost no training.


In this video, Purdue University's Mark Lundstrom
discusses converging technologies.

Personal computers (PCs), in spite of their graphical user interfaces (GUIs), tend to be more text-oriented. They are interactive, geared toward business and education uses, and their displays are smaller. Computers can be challenging for some and may often require formal education or come with a personal learning curve.

Using a smartphone to make calls and take digital photos and using your digital TV to perform computing tasks, such as surfing the web while watching a movie, are two more examples of technological convergence.

Additional examples include the internet of things (IoT), converged Bluetooth-connected devices and high-bandwidth Wi-Fi data networks to power intelligent sensors embedded in household appliances, automobiles, thermostats and similar everyday items.

The origin of technological convergence

Technological convergence is the result of disruptive innovation that combined the previously siloed fields of telecommunications, IT and media. This movement dates to an era before the prevalence of mobile wireless networks. At the time, telecommunication providers operated fixed telephone networks.

Mobile phones appeared in the 1990s as a convenient way to make phone calls on the go. More recently, smartphones emerged that support various functions through a single interface, such as gaming, listening to music, checking email or texting. In addition to multimedia, smart devices include GPS tracking, which supports location-based service (LBS) for advertising in e-commerce.

Mainstream internet adoption fueled further convergence by telcos (telecommunications companies). This led to the development of network convergence, or media convergence, which enables data, video and voice services to be delivered on a single network. Providers once limited to telephone services are now able to offer bundled packages of cable TV, voice and internet access for a monthly rate.

Examples of technological convergence

Aside from telecommunications and media, technological convergence is starting to pervade other old-line industries. Initially, most newspapers and other print products had little to no internet presence. Over time, news outlets recognized the value of integrating new media to deliver real-time content and boost the reach of advertisers.

Converging technologies fueled the birth of social media applications for sharing content via an online platform. Almost every major media outlet has embraced a DevOps approach to create branded applications in which users may interact directly with editorial staff and other subscribers via the publisher's Facebook page, Twitter handle or chatroom.

Electric vehicles also underscore the blurred lines between disparate technologies. Because they run on alternative fuels, these vehicles must tap into an interconnected electricity grid, while also interacting with internet technologies to analyze and transmit the data they collect.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the simulation of human behavior by a computing device. Chatbots are software-driven tools designed with machine learning and natural language algorithms. Some companies use chatbots to handle service inquiries. Virtual assistants, like Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri, Google Assistant and Microsoft's Cortana, are AI chatbots. AI, blockchain and IoT technologies are converging to enable a tamper-proof ledger for financial transactions.

Technological convergence enables the film industry to lower costs and add more interesting effects with digital production. On the other hand, digitized content is vulnerable to piracy through content ripping, and production houses may lose revenue as more viewers opt for video streaming in place of going to a movie theater.

Data centers increasingly are considering converged infrastructure (CI) or hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI). In CI, companies can buy compute, networking, server and storage components by the rack. HCI packages all the components on a single appliance.

Drawbacks of converging technologies

Despite its advantages, technological convergence comes with notable drawbacks. Due to the complexity of delivering internet, video and voice services, network providers must make necessarily expensive investments in computing, networks, security and continuous software development. These costs generally will be absorbed by consumers in the form of higher rates or service fees.

Also, although they compete in a regulated industry, telcos own the existing network infrastructure and may be reluctant to share it with rivals. This provides a barrier to entry for new companies to bring innovations to market. This situation has led to a debate over net neutrality rules in the United States that were enacted in 2015 to treat broadband services as a utility and prevent providers from giving preference to services they own over competing services. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed the rules in 2018 after a series of legal challenges, although individual states are considering passing their own net neutrality laws.

From a user perspective, form factor plays a role in the efficiency of the converged technologies. While you can open a browser on a smartphone, a mobile device may not be equipped to provide the same functionality as a desktop or PC.

More importantly, given the pervasive nature of data collection enabled by converged technologies, it can be difficult for users to fully understand when data is being mined and how it is being used to build a personal profile. Wearable devices, lapses in cybersecurity and the proliferation of mobile devices have increased the attack surface that hackers can use to steal personally identifiable information (PII).

These concerns have sparked debate on the need for additional regulations in the U.S., similar to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws that govern data privacy in European Union (EU) member countries.

This was last updated in July 2018

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