Regressive progress?

I forget who said that the great thing about the mobile phone network was that it had lowered people’s expectations of telephony to the point where internet calls were now feasible…

I couldn’t help thinking of this while looking at the map of the UK’s planned switchover to all-digital TV. When I upgraded my aerial a couple of years ago to allow me to do digital stuff, it made such a difference to my analogue picture that the digital signal, while good, is now definitely inferior. And I have a top-line TV with a high-quality digital tuner, but I am still aware of slight digital artefacts which are more annoying than any analogue noise. Most of our TV-watching is, actually, digital, because we store everything to disk and watch it later, but on the rare occasions when we watch anything live – during Wimbledon, for example – we always prefer the analogue signal. This is because I now have very good reception, but ironically, people at the other extreme – in remote far-flung parts of the country with very poor coverage – will have the opposite problem of not being able to get a digital signal at all.

Often, apparent drops in quality can be explained by Clayton Christensen’s idea of disruptive technology: examples include audiophile hi-fi CD systems being replaced by MP3 players, gigabit ethernet connections proving less popular than wifi, and so forth… The original metric that was used by customers to judge a technology’s value is suddenly replaced by a different one and all those who had striven for constant improvement on one axis suddenly have to change direction. The companies that can move fast are generally the winners.

That’s not really the case for the Digital TV switchover. With classic disruptive technology examples, it’s generally the customer who suddenly realises that he wants something different from technology and is willing to put up with a compromise elsewhere in order to get it. Here, it’s not clear to me that many consumers really want digital TV; this is being driven by the industry, which will make it a much harder sell. And it means that it’s the responsibility of the industry to provision the system appropriately so that customers aren’t let down by ‘progress’.

I’m still keen on the switch to digital, because I know what it will let me do on my hard disk, and I appreciate the value of reclaiming large chunks of the frequency spectrum. For me, these are a higher priority than smooth high-speed motion when watching sports footage. But I can’t help feeling I’m probably in a minority here!

Still, perhaps the great thing about YouTube will prove to be that it lowered our expectations of video to the point where terrestrial digital TV was not too much of a let-down.

1 Comment

I was recently in a big department store and the flat screen televisions were marvellous objects, but the broadcast programmes being shown were horrible, artefact-ridden mush. It was really odd to see the stickers on the sets proclaiming “high definition” and yet the broadcast quality being really poor. I can’t imagine the big manufacturers who have provided expensive, high-quality products for years being happy with the quality of the broadcasting that they must now cater with in order to sell new sets. I’m unhappy about the analogue switchoff but I expect in a few years time some companies will still cater for videophiles who want a good CRT.

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