Only two consumer electronics companies on the planet really matter.
Sony and Nokia are the only two with the market presence and reach to set the standards for the industry. Neither has all the pieces of the picture, but at CeBIT we saw them attempt to fill in some of the gaps. Sony launched the PSX, a PlayStation 2 with TiVo functionality and a DVD-burner. Unlike Xbox2, PSX will be backward-compatible.
But two much more minor announcements from Nokia are worth a second look. Nokia unveiled a home set-top box and a piece of PC software. Neither of these promises a home entertainment revolution but they do indicate some strategic directions.
Nokia's Image Album is a TV accessory with a 20GB hard disk that allows you to view and store images from your camera phone on your TV. With today's blurry VGA camera snaps that might seem risible, but Nokia became the latest manufacturer to equip its 2004 range of handsets with a megapixel camera, and the quality of these is improving dramatically.
Images can be beamed over by infra red or Bluetooth, or transferred by MMC or SD card. Nokia bundles a remote control and has designed a family-friendly user interface that isn't too removed from the PC filing metaphor to be uncomfortable. You can plug a printer into the Image Album or backup to a TV.
The concept isn't new. Nokia's Image Viewer, SU-5, is the latest in a line of these. And not many people know that Nokia also markets a TiVo-like console, a PVR with this functionality built in - the Mediamaster range. Probably because they're only available in Finland and Sweden. (Any reader reports?)
The other part of the puzzle begins to fall into place with the misleadingly-named Lifeblog software. This isn't a weblog, as designer Christian Lindholm stresses. Lindholm designed the world's most popular user interface, the "Navikey" UI found on most Nokia phones, and Series 60 too, although we'll forgive him for that, as it's early days yet.
"Nokia Lifeblog is not a blogging tool, it is a logging tool or as we prefer to call it a multimedia diary," he wrote, correcting some misunderstandings bloggers had spread on his own site last week. It's a scrapbook-style Windows application that gathers photos and messages and allows you to organize them several ways, including by timeline. "Nokia feels that blogging is a subset of your electronic life, not the whole life, hence our focus on the PC initially. The first version will not have any features enabling blogging (you can send e-mail from PC version, but I do not call that blogging)." Only the new 7610 will support this, as yet.
Nice though this is, it's even exponentially nicer to share a scrapbook with friends, although this functionality isn't promised in the first version. Blog-evangelists often proselytize the publicness of the writing, but a finer granularity is needed if Lifeblog isn't to suffer the same fate as blogging itself. As Frank Catalano writes here many of the 98 per cent who don't keep a blog regard it as "a very public form of self-important self-abuse." Do you want your Mother to see what pictures you took last night? Series 60 already has the very convenient groups feature in its Contacts book and we'll check back to see this is on the team's To-Do list. It could be a great example of an outside vendor introducing some new thinking and features into the echo chamber, which spends not an inconsiderable amount of time congratulating itself on how jolly well it's done so far. A granular content management system - what's not to like? (Russell Beattie has more good advice for Nokia here.)
Many a business plan has crashed and burned chasing the dream of convergence. Nokia makes no such boasts. But take today's two announcements together, and you see Nokia making inroads into activities that most of us do, by turning its technology into a seamless tool for sharing stuff. Both are really features - the Digital Viewer should be built into every TV set, but the politics of the CE business makes that an unlikely prospect - rather than products in their own right. But Nokia could succeed where techno-utopians so often fail. ®