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Convergence: lots of heat, not much light

Convergence: lots of heat, not much light

The Convergence Conference promised a glimpse of media’s future. But with no understanding of the region’s youth, it was less of a glimpse than a guess.

August 13, 2008 8:42 by

Mike Gruff

They come from all around the Middle East and further afield, and they come to talk about convergence, to share different definitions of just what convergence is, to celebrate it, bite its neck, suck up its hot, arterial blood and spit it out in a flail of PowerPoint slides and wordy interjections. And then as the light fades and the night gets crazy, they dance woad-painted widdershins around convergence fetishes and set fiery torches to bone-dry wicker convergent men.

This, then, is the Arab Advisors Telecom and Media Convergence Conference in Amman, the annual gathering of the Middle East’s finest TV, media and telecom people. The task at hand: to evaluate strategies for the delivery of “new” media. Except that few can agree what “new” media really is, beyond the fact that it ain’t the old media. Is new media mobile content or streaming TV over the Internet? Is it SMS voting on TV stations or news and horoscope delivery to handsets? Is it (*gasp*) social media? Probably not.

A very dull man from Ericsson proves beyond all reasonable doubt that telecommunications vendors don’t really get “the kids” at all with a video of young people using their mobiles in new and exciting ways. We’ve been watching these videos for years while the young people actually go out and get on with much more interesting stuff.

I never saw a telecoms vendor produce a video of kids posting their lives on Bebo, diving into World of Warcraft or spending eight-hour days on Facebook – let alone texting each other in incomprehensible strings of MSN Arabic or SMS semi-language. So you can pretty much guarantee that the kids are going to do stuff that the vendors don’t expect – and absolutely none of the stuff that the telcos want them to.

The media would appear to be safe enough for now from having their content delivered by telcos. But then, with newspaper sales all over the world falling like granite ducks, you’d surely be forgiven for worrying about where all those young eyeballs are going. And with more young eyeballs in the Middle East than old ones, the youth market is undeniably important.

All the more reason, then, for telcos to invest in getting down with the kids. The fact that they so patently don’t – and from the evidence of this event won’t – understand, let alone cater for, this market segment is frustrating. It’s like watching your grandma trying to do a Rubik’s Cube.

We’ve got operators, media companies and the handset manufacturers all competing for those valuable, bloodshot young eyeballs: each talking head on the stage lays claim to some future promise of convergence. It’s all beginning to look very messy. Indeed, divergence rather than convergence seems to be the growing message and the day’s final panel session seals that view – the panel is very down on the whole notion of convergence in general and takes a number of swipes at the big operators for their lack of commitment to more advanced developments in telecoms and media. Not that they care – all the big boys left at the end of day one.

And so it limps to a close, with a slightly disappointing air of negativity. Will media and telecommunications in the Middle East come together to form new, exciting opportunities to talk to the region’s already massive and fast-growing market of “digital natives?” Not on the evidence of this conference. The sixth in the series, this event showed little sign that the last five have moved the convergence agenda forward at all. Telcos in the Middle East are making all their money out of voice and couldn’t give a hoot about online content, is the inescapable conclusion.

Some would argue that this short-termism will drag the Middle East backwards as everyone else in the world moves forwards. But the speakers and audience at the Convergence Conference are too busy being visionary, dancing around the flames and chanting about future intent. Always future intent.

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