The death of Resolution: Immediacy is the new Quality

Here is a trend that I think is developing, and it is a classic case of competitive pressures forcing companies to make poor decisions.

In the brief history of recorded media and entertainment, we have associated new technological advancements in quality with a large increase in consumer satisfaction and an upswing in sales. From the LP to the Cassette to the CD. With video we went from VHS to the DVD, and now we are being pushed to Blu-Ray and HDDVD.

Moving from cassettes to CDs was an obvious choice for most consumers for one real reason: You could navigate by song. CDs also offered higher quality sound, which many saw as a bonus, but as we all bought CD players with the cheapest of headphones and speakers, it seemed apparent that sound quality was a secondary concern.

After the CD, the MP3 started to come in to prominence and music was broken out even further. Instead of dealing with a long continual tape or LP, we went to track-based CDs, and with MP3s we were moving on to understanding the song as an element of its own, independent from the concept of an album entirely. There had always been “singles”, but they were limited drastically in so many ways: They were selected by record companies, their distribution in physical form was a fraction of regular album distribution, and they were also generally overplayed on the radio and became repetitive.

In essence, the consumer made a decision about priorities. At the time, MP3s topped out reliably at 128kbps, which could be compared to radio quality but is easily distinguishable from even CD quality. What the consumer wanted was not higher quality, which Digital could make the promise of delivering, instead the idea of sharing their music, transferring it to different devices, and burning custom mixed-CDs of their favorite songs was just far too alluring.

The story of video is similar. While one of the driving factors in the move from VHS to DVD was quality, which is much more obvious in video than in audio it seems, DVD also offered a lot of the convenience of the CD, and most significantly did no wear down in the same way VHS tapes could. Never-mind rewinding!

Here is where the story of video is both similar to audio, but also very different.

250px-lddvdcomparison.jpgIn between VHS and the DVD there was also the Laser Disc. Laser Video Discs were very large and cumbersome, they were bigger than an LP and consequentially represented no additional convenience over VHS, even though they did offer a reasonably significant leap in video quality. The laser disc was Dead on Arrival, unlike digital video files.

Digital video has been around as long as the Mp3 or longer. Originally it had far more problems than the MP3. Where the MP3 format was licensed quite liberally to all sorts of players, video formats remained fractured with fights between Quicktime, WMV and a slew of others. Users had to download players, get codecs and then pray that their internet connection could get them the video in any reasonable amount of time, which was rarely the case.

This gave the DVD a huge head start, which would have contributed to its adoption.

As DVD was the dominant format, things started to change in the world of online video. Broadband connection rates have been growing steadily, but more significantly: Flash became a simple, lightweight and ideal video player. Flash was ideal for both the producer and the consumer. It required almost no work from the consumer. No messy codecs, no files to manage, nothing. And it was really easy to install to boot.

bluray.gifAs next generation formats begin to shape up, HDDVD and Blu-Ray, people also started to find it much easier to create their own videos. Seeing the movie as a scene by scene sequence rather than as the epic we have come to know and love.

We now see video going in two directions, one is guided by the end users and the other by production companies and hardware makers. Producers are pushing the two next-generation formats on to store shelves in a protracted battle focused on delivering higher-quality video to consumers.

For a certain subet of customers however, Blu-Ray and HDDVD seem to be the last thing on their mind. Streaming video is taking over TV and DVD as the dominant video format for one single reason: convenience factor.

This impact is felt within the realm of digital video as well. In speaking to several university students and asking them about how they watch video, many eschewed delivery platforms such as iTunes and Bittorrent because of convenience factors. Even though a typical Bittorrent or iTunes video is of much superior quality, most students are turning to streaming, on-demand flash-based video from sites like ucTV and others. This is an example of convenience trumping quality even within the world of digital video.

Immediacy is more important than video quality

Producers need to realize that immediate distribution is more important that providing a high-quality version of the video. This also applies to the time companies take in distributing videos to the consumer. It takes month for a film to go from the theater to DVD now, but low-quality versions, often with foreign subtitles, are usually available within days online and consumers are more than willing to watch these videos and find them to be an acceptable alternative.

The content format is going to change eventually

This trend is going to stick around and its effect will be compounded beyond simple effects on distribution, content format will eventually change as well. As people become more and more accustomed with ripping and mixing video, they start to accept shorter and shorter videos as high-value entertainment. Youtube is the most obvious example of this.

The 5-minute epic

At some point this format shift will be compounded even more and watching entire 2-hour films will become less and less common. The art of the 5-minute (or 20 minute perhaps) epic will become a significant niche with widespread mainstream acceptance. The Academy Awards, which will be chopped up and delivered as a playlist of small videos, will dedicate a significant amount of their mainstream awards to these short films.

HDDVD and Blu-Ray are a poor market position

Content is king and it is going to be increasingly difficult to maintain market leadership based on high-quality video format. While large amounts of individuals in the middle-upper class will buy large flat screen TVs and high-definition video players, a coming generation of consumers will not be nearly as comfortable in front of the same 40-50″ screen. They are used to watching video on a laptop screen, usually while curled up in bed and they are more likely to watch on-demand 20-minute TV shows as they are to watch long-form movies.


At some point, high-definition will converge with immediacy. Large broadband connections and better streaming formats will mean that on-demand streaming video will be of a superior quality. 480p will be more than enough for a huge proportion of consumers.

Not just video

Trending in clothing in the last 15 years have showed similar tastes. Low-quality but fashion-current chains are gaining a larger foothold in the clothing industry. With stores like H&M, Zara, Guess and Forever XXI offering cheap versions of the same styles that you see at stores like D&G, Prada and other high-fashion designers.

Food has also seen this shift with the onslaught of Fast Food, which I think has been the most disturbing convience and immediacy based trending in consumer behavior, but it serves as a barometer for Video and a slew of other industries.

Video producers have to understand this trend and address it head on, most likely to the detriment of short term profits, in order to better iterate of potential business models in this space. Projects like Hulu from NBC show that not all players are completely clueless.

8 thoughts on “The death of Resolution: Immediacy is the new Quality

  1. Don’t you think we’ll have both and soon? Immediacy and quality? I don’t know enough about the technologies, but as bandwidth is growing at unprecedented speeds and the technologies are just getting easier for developers… For instance, I had lunch today with a gaming exec who told me Comcast is getting ready to roll out 10x faster broadband access in its markets. Innovation in the media & entertainment side of the business is closely aligned to advertising too — where the dollar incentive is.

  2. We will have both, and it will be pretty soon, but it actually probably won’t be because of better broadband tech being rolled out. Despite cool projects like Verizon FIOS and what Comcast might be doing, broadband in north america has stagnated really seriously in the last several years.

    About 50% of US households have “broadband” and the job of rebuilding that entire network for 10x speed is going to take a long time.

    Also, the typical streaming-video audience that I talked about are more likely to be on university broadband connections, which are generally extremely fast.

    But the bigger problem I see is that a) HDDVD/Blu-Ray quality (ie: HD) and even DVD-equivalent is still a ways off from being streamed on-demand and the second I click on the play button (or even within 5-10 minutes). Try downloading an HD film on Apple TV, it takes a while. Tech technology is still not there in Flash or Silverlight either.

    The habits that will form in the meantime are what I meant to point out as the biggest real change, and simply providing content the way it is produced now isn’t going to cut it, expectations will probably be changed by the time the two technologies (broadband and video formats) converge.

    That is…. I think. 😉

  3. Jev, great post. Very interesting analysis – my response below:

    I don’t believe immediacy will trump quality. Just as Zara has not put Gucci out of business, and McDonald’s poses no threat to Colborne Lane, so too will YouTube and other streaming platforms fail to kill cinema. This is a discussion of platform, content, and individual desire.

    The traditional moviegoing experience won’t be obsolesced by streaming videos and small-screen digital platforms. The change afoot is that moviegoing will be one way of seeing a new film rather than the way. I see content delivery formats and modes as existing on a continuum, and as we move down the continuum, popularity is evenly spaced. For example – in music, while the mp3 is incredibly popular, and downloads surge while CD sales slump, the LP is simultaneously undergoing a niche renaissance – some might even argue it never disappeared at all, but held on to a steady niche appeal with a particular group of consumers.

    I believe a surge in convenience retrieves the inconvenient, a surge in the ‘virtual’ retrieves the physical – as a niche pattern. I don’t believe that “snack-sized” media will replace epic visual feasts of film and story, I believe there is room for both, and each will find its place with the consumers who most value their particular advantages.

    As the audiophile niche has rediscovered the sonic “warmth” of the LP, so too will cineasts insist upon the “warmth” and authenticity of the traditional theatrical experience, viewing full-length features on projected film, from start to finish. However, what we understand to be a ‘traditional’ moviegoing experience will be but one platform for the consumption of a film. It will be a niche experience and no longer the primary option, or even the most popular option, for visual media. But it will not die.

    There will instead be a range of options represented in format and delivery platform, and there will be winners, plural, for each combination of format and delivery that represent the range of goals in user experience. Convenience, for some consumers, will never trump immersion or escape. I believe this idea holds true when discussing nearly every content delivery medium I can think of (from books to blogs and back again.)

    I’m sure you’ve heard a new theatrical release reviewed dismissively as a “rental”? This is the behavioral and preferential range I’m talking about. What’s great is that this is about individual taste and the fitness of any medium or platform to the tastes and desires of the individual consumer. I’ll invoke the almighty McLuhan tetrad here, to remind you that any new format or medium may obsolesce another, but it will retrieve still another, and as long as we individuals continue to have a plurality of priorities and desires – desires that vary situationally according to the complex interplay of both contextual and subjective motivational factors as well as our perception of the content itself, then that plurality of goals and desires from person to person (and within one person from situation to situation) will be represented in the range of “winning” media and platforms we popularize.

    My two. Keep up the great posts!

  4. Jevon:

    Great post. The one piece to watch will be whether the pipeline will grow fast enough to support the increase in content, particularly video, that will travel through the web. There’s already some of the major broadband providers seeking to change their pricing structure to charge heavy bandwidth users more than light users of the web. This could cause a major digital divide.

  5. Think of your product and segments as well. Watching a video isn’t exactly a “high involvement” decision and what need is satisified? Entertainment. Not ot mention that college students are not exactly known for their patience and their desire for the finer things in life. Quality still matters to some, but yes, speed is started to kill more and more often.

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