The Measure of Technological Success

Over at Manifest Density, Tom has a couple interesting posts up arguing that the success of Blu-Ray in our marketplace should not be taken as proof that it’s a “better” technology than HD DVD, as many seem to have contended.

Megan’s right [as stated here] that I and a lot of my fellow nerds aren’t very happy about this outcome, but she’s wrong to say that “[e]very time there’s a format war, the losers complain that the inferior product won through nefarious methods.” I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization. In this case I can admit that Blu-Ray is the technically superior standard. Many technologists didn’t like it because it seemed a bit more DRM-laden, because it didn’t seem worth the price premium, and because Sony has behaved very badly with respect to proprietary media formats in the past […]

It’s just that it’s frustratingly obvious that the factors determining a technology’s success frequently have little to do with its capabilities, price, performance or other innate attributes. Rather, they’re the result of quirks of the business environment into which the technology is born.

I don’t think I have much to add to this debate, but I thought it was interesting enough to be worth sharing. I’m not convinced (as some of those in this debate have suggested) that all economists would argue that the “better” technology is the one that succeeds in the marketplace, and I disagree with the criticism that Tom’s idea of technological superiority is devoid of consideration of human and market concerns. I think (in agreement with Tom) that any technology has its pros and its cons in its design, but that these formal features may have little or nothing to do with what plays out in the marketplace in the long run thanks to the quirks of the business world.

It’s important to consider that “better” is subjective to group interests—better for whom? Arguably, Blu-Ray is better for movie studios in the short run view because it seems to offer better DRM. Maybe HD DVD was better for consumers because of less restriction in this way (which, some will certainly argue, would have been better for everyone in the long run, as the lack of rights management in audio cassettes was likely a boon to the music recording industry). We’ll never get to see how this plays out long-term in a real, idealized “market” scenario, though, because some major studios threw their support to one side early and made up consumers’ minds for them.

For my part, I wasn’t interested in committing to an expensive, high-def movie format right now. I must admit, though, that I appreciate the free bag I got from the Consumer Electronics Show much more now because of the HD DVD ad embroidered on the outside. In five to ten years, that will be about as hip as a Betamax t-shirt.

(This entry has been cross-posted at Shouting Loudly.)

One thought on “The Measure of Technological Success

  1. This was one of those, “To hell with both of them” moments for me. HD-DVD is more consumer friendly, in that it lacks the second layer of DRM, and has no region encoding. However, it DID mandate a Microsoft-sponsored format for interactivity (Blu-Ray has it as an option.)

    Me, I’m buying cheap external HDDs. And DVDs.

Comments are closed.