Quality vs. Convenience - Embedded.com

Quality vs. Convenience

My kids gave me pictures of themselves for Christmas. The images are wonderful; the juxtaposition of the youngest one's innocence and the 14-year-old's Elmer's-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 sit 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, they pale 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 trumpeted 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 drums. 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 that 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 (short message service) 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: 78-RPM records 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?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. He founded two companies specializing in embedded systems. Contact him at . His website is .

Reader Feedback:

Seems like your essay is really about semantics. Quality is a rather broad term. I think you mean fidelity and not reliability. I don't think consumers (teenagers or otherwise) would buy MP3 players that didn't reliably operate. However, it's clear that consumers are open to the fidelity vs. cost trade-offs that the new digital technologies provide. I just got a digital camera for christmas. It's great because I can take lots of shots and don't have to worry about the cost of film. However, I also have a film camera and I wouldn't dream of giving that up. For important family pictures I use film (or even digital and film). For everyday shots I use digital. I think that eventually as digital cameras improve and photo printers improve film may be on the way out. But I'm not interested in spending $15,000 for a digital photo printer today and I'm not interested in spending ! $15 (! or the time involved to drop it off, and pick up) for film developing for everyday type shots.

Pithy topic. Thanks Jack.

Tim Avila
Group Marketing Director
CMP Media LLC


Three quarters of my fellow engineers, including myself, voted quality over convenience in the poll.This reminds me that 80% of us think we are better-than-average drivers.

David J. Liu
Director of Technology
ePacific Inc.

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