LAS VEGAS - There’s an old saying that captures all the big announcements last week at the annual Consumer Electronics Show here: "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
In other words, the tools you use determine how you see the world.
The nail, in this case, is digital convergence — the epic shift of electronic entertainment, information and communications to the Internet.
Each technology heavyweight presenting its version of the future wielded a different hammer, based on its background and strengths.
The upshot is that there are simply too many products out there and they don’t yet work well together. That’s why 2006 won’t be the year convergence becomes mainstream in U.S. households.
Microsoft sees convergence as a software problem, to be solved with a new version of its flagship Windows operating system due by year-end.
Intel sees convergence as a microprocessor problem, to be solved with a vague new branding program called ‘‘Viiv’’ to make different devices work together more easily.
Cisco sees convergence as a home networking problem, to be solved with a fancy new networked DVD player.
Yahoo and Google see convergence as an online services problem, to be solved with new features for managing your life and your entertainment through a Web browser.
Sony sees convergence as a consumer hardware problem, to be solved with new wireless TV sets.
AT&T, known until late last year as SBC, and Verizon see convergence as a telecommunications problem, to be solved with ultrafast fiber-optic networks that deliver voice, video and Web pages through a single line.
The electronics show, which ended its four-day run Jan. 8, has evolved into something of a launch pad for audacious vision statements from these tech titans, delivered through chief executives’ keynote speeches that draw standingroom-only crowds.
Keeping those crowds amused is getting harder and harder, triggering a weird kind of celebrity poker where chief executives won’t get taken seriously unless they bring a surprise Hollywood guest on stage.
Terry Semel of Yahoo won the war of the Toms, trumping an appearance by Tom Hanks for Sony and Intel by bringing out Tom Cruise. Bill Gates, once the biggest celebrity magnet at the show, couldn’t do any better than teen heartthrob Justin Timberlake, who didn’t even sing a song.
Beyond the glitter, the show was filled with an edgy mix of fear and excitement.
Once everyone has ultrafast broadband connections at home, and semifast wireless broadband connections away from home, the world really will change in profound ways.
Television and movies will increasingly be delivered on demand, rather than at a time set by network programmers. New music will be accessible anywhere. You’ll always know the availability and location of your family, friends and coworkers — assuming they want to be found.
The boundaries between devices will fade. There won’t be much difference between a computer and a television, or between a mobile phone and a portable digital music player.
So Microsoft is pitching its upcoming Windows Vista as a way to move movies, music, photos and personal video around the house, and is even touting PCs as a replacement for cable TV set-top boxes.
San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems, through its Linksys consumer subsidiary, instead wants to sell home networking equipment that will do the job. It will begin selling its networked DVD player, most likely under the Linksys name, this summer.
Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo and Mountain View, Calif.-based Google want to suck everything into the browser, with all your personal data stored on their servers. Your hardware requirements would then be minimal; you’d only need relatively simple devices capable of running a browser to be entertained and to communicate.
At the show, Google cofounder Larry Page introduced an online video store that will be open to anyone to post programming for others to watch for free, or for sale on terms set by the provider.
If successful, it could weaken the grip of cable and satellite TV companies. Page also unveiled Google Pack, a collection of free software from Google and others that will be expanded in the future and could even include free workplace software competing with Microsoft’s lucrative Office suite.
Yahoo’s Semel rolled out a service called Yahoo Go that makes it easy to access the company’s many services — including e-mail, music, calendar and video clips — through televisions and mobile phones, as well as computers.
Some of these initiatives are mutually exclusive; if you network your home with Microsoft’s ‘‘media extender’’ boxes, for example, then you aren’t going to buy a Linksysconnected DVD player.
Some initiatives rely on each other; Yahoo Go, for example, is designed to run on TV sets that are plugged into computers running Microsoft Windows.
But, as is always the case in Silicon Valley, eager technology companies are rushing to create 20 solutions for a market that will ultimately accept only two or three.
The excitement in the next few years won’t be wondering whether digital convergence will happen — that’s a given — but in handicapping which of these many new ideas and which companies will come out on top.