Sure, if you're a technologist or investor deciding where to place your bets, the outcome may be important. If you're a provider of marketing or editorial content, however, it just doesn't matter.
But as they did with the erroneous and misinterpreted 500-channel concept, pundits are once again leading the world down a minor tributary that distracts us from the real issues.
The bottom line is that people interact with computers today and they will interact with TV sets in the future. And you won't have to stop doing one to do the other. You won't want to chat about politics to a roomful of strangers through the TV set and you're not going to predict plays during "Monday Night Football" on a PC.
It is true that computers are ahead of the curve for now. There are millions of people interacting today with computer online services and CD-ROMs. And many interactive TV tests have been tainted by technical glitches and false starts.
But it is precisely because PCs allow two-way communications that consumers will insist on being able to interact with the TV. As they grow more adept at computer interaction, people are going to get fed up with the dumb, passive receiver sitting in their living rooms and bedrooms pretty quickly.
It's all about control. One reason that pay-per-view TV hasn't lived up to its promise is because most cable operators know next to nothing about consumer marketing.
Another reason is that the viewer has only a false sense of control-it is the cable company that decides which movies to show and when, and if you have to get up to go to the bathroom, you better hope someone else in the room is willing to tell you what you missed.
The videotape rental business, on the other hand, has succeeded because of the high level of control turned over to the user. You pick the movie, decide when and where you want to watch it and direct the viewing experience. Missed that one-liner? Rewind. Bored with the opera scene? Fast-forward. Want to raid the fridge? Pause.
This is the promise of video on demand, only minus the hassle of picking up and dropping off the tapes and remembering to rewind before you return lest you get hit with that pesky surcharge. Which is why many observers believe video on demand is likely to be one of new media's so-called killer applications.
The fact is that both the TV and computer will be interactive devices with their own strengths and weaknesses. Computers will show more video and TVs will be powered by computer brains, but the two will remain distinct appliances for the foreseeable future.
As many have noted before, interacting 10 inches from a screen with a keyboard at your fingertips is quite a different experience from interacting 10 feet from the screen with a remote control in your hand-maybe with your family and friends gathered around.
The key for marketers and editorial content providers is to examine both interactive experiences and try to figure out how interactivity changes the dynamics of communicating with the customer. Ad agencies have to understand the role of agents and creatives in an environment that allows direct contact between buyer and seller. Marketers have to learn to give up control to the end-user. All have to realize TV's unbeatable penetration level and how comfortable the consumer already is with the TV set.
These are the real issues. PC vs. TV? That's just a sideshow.
Scott Donaton is editor of the Interactive Media & Marketing section.