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By Jack Ganssle

Quality vs Convenience

Published 1/05/2002

My kids gave me pictures of themselves for Christmas. The images are wonderful; the juxtaposition of the youngest's innocence and the 14 year old's Elmers-spiked hair priceless. The camera's lying eye caught them posed together with no hint of sibling poking and prodding. As I write these pictures are on my desk next to many others taken at other times.

These latest photos, though, were taken by a digital camera and then processed at a local Kodak do-it-yourself shop. Though their detail and resolution is astonishing, it pales next to the 35mm shots from years past. Small pixelations obscure subtle detail in my son's acne. The colors, too, fail to do justice to his glued hair, their depth no match for those of film.

But the lower quality images sure haven't hurt camera sales. The very lowest resolution devices cost so little that it's hard to justify the $10-15 per roll developing charges of film. But I suspect cost is less important to consumers than the convenience of the cameras, and the immediacy of the results. No third party is needed to transfer the image to a useful format, and there's no annoying delay in going from clicking the shutter to printing or emailing an image.

I remember when music CDs came on the scene in the 80s. The first marketing blitz triumphed the superior sound provided by digital pressings. Some special recordings explicitly exploited the CD's capabilities: I have a version of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture with heavy artillery instead of cannons. The label warns about "digital cannons" that might destroy speakers.

(OK, OK, I know some purists insist that vinyl has a more subtle and complete sound than CDs, but I could never get past the pops and clicks of my old record collection.)

Now MP3 players are the rage. My teenager and his friends all copy their CDs to palm-sized MP3 devices which use non-volatile memory or even tiny disk-like cards to store an astonishing number of songs. Fidelity is sacrificed since MP3 trades off quality for smaller storage requirements.

Not long ago "hi-fi" ads touted spectral purity and absolute fidelity. Now these attributes are subordinated to the convenience of a small device that stores thousands of songs and uses little power. Though the signal isn't as good as is possible, it's good enough.

What about communications? SMS is poised to strike in the USA. In parts of Europe young folks send billions of messages abbreviated nearly to the point of being a cipher, using a pathetic little keyboard and tiny cell-phone screen. In some classrooms these have become a bane as students surreptitiously exchange messages with the devices hidden in pockets or the pages of a book. They're willing to sacrifice the broad bandwidth of the telephone for a quick and quiet exchange of messages using an argot unintelligible to the uninitiated. Again, convenience is the primary selling point.

In electronics we climbed a difficult slope in providing consumers with the very best of everything: 78s gave way to 33s and thence to CDs. Now it seems we've topped the mountain of perfection. Immediacy and convenience outweigh most other concerns.

If you're designing products, especially those aimed at younger consumers, I bet it's risky to sacrifice convenience or immediacy in favor of quality.

What do you think? Should venture capitalists mostly fund consumer products that offer convenience uber alles? Is this the model for successful consumer products of the `00s?