At one point, it seemed, big bad Microsoft was going to take over the world -- until it wasn't.

That gave way to the notion that "content" would be king, and conglomerates like Disney and Viacom, with their movie studios and broadcast networks and cable channels, were surely going to dominate the media landscape. But somehow that didn't work out either.

Then there was the theory that the big winners would be the companies with the monopoly "pipes" into homes and businesses -- cable companies such as Comcast, phone companies such as Verizon, Rupert Murdoch's DirecTV -- that could decide what bundle of services consumer would get and dictate financial terms to content providers. Only it turned out that they really couldn't do that.

Most recently, the momentum and money seemed to swing toward the search engines, Yahoo and Google, which act as the advertising-laden intermediaries between consumers and where on the Internet they want to go.

One thing, however, that nearly everyone agreed on was that the merger of America Online and Time Warner was a disaster. Time Warner's content proved to be of little interest to most subscribers, while AOL was dismissed as a dial-up relic in a broadband world.

Until, of course, last week, when suddenly Microsoft, Google, Comcast and Yahoo were all desperate to buy a piece of AOL. The prize was said to be access to AOL's 111 million customers, or its instant messaging network, or its MapQuest and Moviefone sites. The talk was of joint ventures, spinoffs and other exclusive arrangements.

Apple Computer, meanwhile, which had been given up for dead before it revived and single-handedly revolutionized the music business, announced its own foray into the "convergence" race with an update to its wildly popular iPod. In addition to customized downloads of audio tracks, the new iPod-with-a-screen can store downloads of TV shows and music videos and who knows what else, to be watched anywhere, anytime. And for the moment, most of that content will be provided by Walt Disney Co., yet another of the also-rans long ago dismissed by the media gurus.

It should be obvious by this point that the technology is moving so fast, the consumer response is so unpredictable, the amount of money being invested is so huge that it will be years, if ever, before the whole thing shakes out. No company, no business model, no segment of the value chain can claim the upper hand. All that is certain is that many fortunes will be made and lost in the process, and that, in the end, the big winner will be the consumer.