Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Good Enough?

When new technology first becomes available, it is typically bleeding edge and not very user friendly. Over time, four things inevitably occur; the technology becomes more stable, more user-friendly, and features are added, and price comes down. Not all of these things are mutually compatible, as two of them are at odds with one another.

Today we see many tech gadgets beginning to bifurcate into two distinct classes. The first is the high-end, feature-rich versions that people who demand the best quality of products and output demand. The second is highly-reliable, easy-to-use versions that skimp on features in the name of simplicity and priced for mass market appeal.

We see this phenomenon time after time during product life cycles. On example of this was photography. Early photography required a whole lot of tinkering, specialized equipment, and self-processing of photographs. As the technology became more mainstream, cameras began to be made in two classes. There was the high-end, interchangeable lens models with adjustments for shutter speed and exposure time that required light meters and skills beyond the everyday user. But most people wanted a way to simply take decent quality pictures with little fuss or expense. So cameras like the once-ubiquitous Kodak Brownie brought “point and shoot” snapshots to the average weekend picture taker.

Today we see the same forces at work in the digital video and photography realm. Digital technology has continually come down in price, and yielding many advantages to the average photographer. The immediacy of the once-popular Polaroid Land Camera coupled with the ability to take thousands of shots very inexpensively has caused traditional film photography to become a niche market of hobbyists and Luddites.

Yet there are those who strive for the best quality, both in their gear and in the pictures they take. So now we see digital single-lens reflex cameras available at top dollar, with lenses that cost more than several consumer grade digital point and shoot cameras. Some of the best equipment is difficult for the consumer to justify for personal use, and remain the domain of the professional who makes a living with his or her photographic equipment.

The consumer market has benefited immensely from the market forces of competition, and once high-end features coming down in price as economies of scale in the production process, have brought sophisticated technology to the masses. Still it is not always an easy proposition for the manufacturers to combine ease of use with a plethora of features and functions.

This has led to the market for super simple, basic featured models that are gaining in popularity. Surely, the problems in the macro economy help drive this, but equally at play is the demand for something that is utilitarian and just works. Consumers are wanting products that do one or two things that cover the majority of their needs, and do those things simply and do them with exceedingly well.

In the photography realm we have been examining, the most evident example of this “simpler is better” approach is the Flip camera. This device records still and full motion video onto flash memory, in a device with a form factor not much larger than a deck of playing cards. It has a flip out USB connection to easily move photos and video to a computer, as well as software to make it easy to upload to web-based services such as YouTube or Flicker. It is also then easy to do post processing work on the computer, although the market for the Flip and similar devices are not likely to do much of that. If you are looking to make the next feature film, replete with digital effects, the Flip is not for you. On the other hand, if you like to have a camera to capture the impromptu event with no preplanning or setup required, and like to share these events with friends, family, or the general population, these are terrific cameras.

Another example is in the world of telephony. The USA had what was called the best telephone system in the world. During the days when The Bell System and an interconnected network of smaller independents provided our phone service, they were regulated and guaranteed a positive rate of return. In exchange, they used the money provided under a regulated monopoly approach to deploy rock-solid technology, whereby phone service became not only universally available, but as reliable as any technology ever devised. The simplification occurred with the rollout of things like “Direct Distance Dialing” which permitted people to bypass the long distance operator; and the technology of Dual Tone Multifrequency (DTMF) dialing, more commonly known as its original brand name, Touch Tone, which ultimately eliminated the rotary dial from our telephones.

Today, telephone service is rapidly moving off the older circuit-switched technology, where every conversation had a complete circuit connecting the call; to Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, where voice conversations are digitized and sent as data packets in many different directions, either over the Internet (as with Vonage), or on private networks as many telecom companies are doing.

Is VoIP as reliable as the older technology? In this writer’s opinion, not yet; but it will likely get there with its broader deployment. Just as cell phones still drop calls and have dead spots with no signal available, the convenience of them override the imperfections in the technology as it currently exists. People are moving in large numbers away from the reliable old landline telephone service to the cheaper, but less expensive and more mobile VoIP and cellular services to the point that traditional phone service is a shrinking market. The telcos are finding it necessary to build their future on Internet access and wireless technologies rather than the dying cash cow of traditional land lines.

Then we have music. MP3 files are definitely not high-fidelity, yet their portability and small size gives them benefits that standard CDs don't offer. The same goes for Sirius/XM Satellite Radio, which offers a large number of music and talk formats, but at the expense of audio quality, since to extract such capacity, the stations are multiplexed and highly compressed.

So while I appreciate the tradeoffs, I hope we do not become a society where good enough is always good enough. There is a place for quality over quantity or utility.