Canadian rock icon Neil Young’s Pono digital music device has garnered rave reviews since a high-profile launch at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, TX, last week, and more than doubled its fundraising goal of US$800,000 on Kickstarter. At first blush there seem to be plenty of audiophiles out there willing to trade up from an iPod to the US$399, Toblerone-shaped device when it becomes available in October, not to mention fork out upwards of US$15 for digital album downloads from Ponomusic.com for the superior audio experience it offers.
A few cranky critics have pointed out that Pono will have to convince a sufficient number of music publishers to remaster their analogue recordings to the new digital standard for there to be a worthwhile library of titles to listen to. But there’s a more important reason why Apple and its MP3 cohorts have little to fear from the upstart that will at best serve a niche market akin to vinyl records.
The biggest lesson to be gleaned over the last 150 years of media technology evolution is that quality doesn’t matter that much to most people. Not as much, certainly, as convenience, affordability and sheer quantity. When it comes to media technology, we’re gluttons, not gourmands. Consumers, not connoisseurs.
In deference to Shaky, let’s start with recorded music. High fidelity sound reproduction peaked in the 1960s and has not appreciably improved since. Then we listened to whole albums on living-room hi-fis. Today most people listen to truncated MP3 recordings through earbuds while riding the bus or pounding the pavement in running gear. The sound quality is terrible. But the technology lets us multi-task, or enjoy a musical interlude in those useless minutes between more engaging activities. The music is also cheaper to both produce and consume. We can pack more tunes on an iPhone—not even a dedicated music player!—than most families would have had in their record collection in 1965. Convenience, low cost, volume—we have those in spades. But quality? Meh.
Now consider the movies. Today’s motion pictures are little improved since the first colour blockbuster, The Wizard of Oz, came out in 1939. And think about how we watch them. Instead of watching a two-storey screen in a dark room for two hours at a stretch, we watch them on TVs, computer screens and now even hand-held devices with inferior sound. We probably wouldn’t notice if the original, big-screen print was out of focus. Plus, instead of giving a film our undivided attention, we watch it with distractions—children, meals in the oven, Facebook posts on the smartphone. We pause it or stop it altogether to resume the story at a later date.
Ah, some will say: what about Imax? This Canadian cinematic technology, now found on every continent, is all about improving the moviegoing experience. But the fact is Imax fills a small niche in a massive worldwide entertainment industry. If you bought Imax stock at its late-1970s high and held it to today, you would have lost ground to generalized inflation. If you bought Apple, a company founded around the same time but ultimately based on the goal of media ubiquity rather than quality, you would be very, very rich.
The same low-fi principle applies to a number of other media technologies as well. People took photographs of astounding quality in the 19th Century. The problem was the photographer also had to be something of a chemist to get them developed. Then the entrepreneur George Eastman came up with an ingenious business model for his Kodak box camera: “You shoot the picture. We do the rest.” Like smartphone makers today, Eastman Kodak sold the hardware at cost, knowing that it would make that back and more selling and developing film. It didn’t improve the quality of photography—if you wanted to customize a picture at all, you still had to do it yourself. But photography became cheaper, more convenient and more common.
Note too that it was destroying Eastman’s business model, not improving the quality of the image, that’s been the signature achievement of digital photography over the past 15 years. Now photography is more convenient, cheaper and more abundant than ever—but no better quality.
There are still more examples of media technology whose killer apps resulted in a lower-fidelity experience. Even relatively new ones. After reaching a remarkable level of versimilitude, console video games are now losing ground to simply rendered, cheaply made games played on wireless devices. It’s worth considering which will be the bigger deal 20 years hence: the likes of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 or that of Candy Crush and Minecraft?
So, memo to Neil Young: when you attempt to bring the world a better quality of media experience, know that you’re battling against more than a century of business experience that shows the best-quality formats seldom, if ever, win out in the mass market. The winners prioritize convenience, low cost and sheer quantity.
Michael McCullough is a managing editor at Canadian Business