Quality vs. convenience

Eliot van Buskirk is wrong about the major labels being able to save themselves by re-releasing higher quality versions of music based on their ownership of the original masters. Historically, consumers have never been willing to change formats for higher quality. SACD and DVD-A didn’t fail only because they required new hardware–MP3s took off with the release of the iPod, which is hardware. The reason people were willing to pay $300 for a glorified hard drive and spend several hours re-ripping all their CDs into a new format was because of the added convenience: thousands of songs in your pocket. Same with the move from LPs to CDs–sure, the industry sold higher quality and reliability, but the real reason was convenience: CDs are smaller, easier to transport, and you can skip to your favorite songs. Same with VHS to DVD–no need to rewind the tape, and it’s really easy to skip around, rewind, freeze, and so on. The quality is higher, but that’s a secondary consideration.

So Eliot can say it’d be “easy” for Apple to release a new generation of 24-bit players, but only the hardcore audiophiles would buy them.

A similar train of thought came up when I saw that Microsoft is offering a high-definition version of a South Park episode through the Xbox Live Marketplace. Of all content that could benefit from high definition, an aggressively low-budget 2D cartoon (that’s part of the joke) would be near the bottom of my list. But the bigger point: I’d argue that high-definition video formats, particularly HD DVD and Blu-ray, are dead on arrival. Consumers aren’t willing to switch formats simply for higher quality.

But a co-worker made a good point: big screens are becoming common–even Costco offers a 42-inch high-definition plasma set for less than $1,000 now. Standard-definition video simply doesn’t fill up those big screens. So people will move to high-definition simply because “standard” now looks like junk. He could be right.

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