The “Good Enough” Issue

by Josh Rubenoff May 14, 2010

It's nice to think that the future is designed by teams of scientists and engineers who are on the cutting edge of innovation, and who exemplify the potential that individual intelligence and ingenuity have to shape society at large. But although this is partially true, many of these people are either employed or underwritten by giant corporations, which complicates this ideal. Since these companies own any and all intellectual property developed by those currently under their employ, they can and do regularly hinder the progress of technologies they hold the patents to, if it's in their financial self-interest. (Hence the crazy Apple patent filings that regularly appear online and are never heard of again.)

Sometimes, when corporations—like, for example, camcorder manufacturers—discourage further development of game-changing technologies in order to prevent cannibalizing their existing product line, a start-up can provide a breakthrough product like the RED ONE camera, a professional digital video camera that emulates the resolution and vibrance of 35mm film. But mostly, the future is locked up under NDAs and a restrictive patent system, without much hope of reaching the public at large. This is just as true of Apple as other companies. The company routinely adopts technologies that aren't excellent, but "good enough" for consumers to accept.

When the iTunes Music Store was first introduced, Apple elected to sell its catalog in the form of 128kbps AAC files—very compressed audio that was terrible to listen to on quality speakers. Still, they were good enough for consumers to pay $0.99 for, small enough to fit on the relatively low-capacity iPods on sale at the time, and the quality didn't really make a difference when listening with the mediocre pack-in white earbuds. The decision was acceptable in 2003, when most other digital music stores sold their wares at a similar bitrate, but seven years later it's a different story.

While stores like Bandcamp sell lossless versions of songs in formats like FLAC, iTunes has only doubled the bitrate of its music—256kbps AAC files are still the only audio format available in the store. This might be understandable if Apple didn't feel like selling its music in a third-party codec like FLAC, but Apple has already developed its own Apple Lossless Audio Codec. I would guess that the reason iTunes doesn't sell ALAC files in the store has to do with how Apple markets iPods and iPhones. You can claim up to ten times more songs fit on any given device if they're AAC rather than lossless. Or maybe Apple just doesn't have enough capacity in its data centers to handle the extra bandwidth lossless downloads would require. Regardless, Apple decided to sell an inferior product because it aligned best with its own interests. Which is perfectly okay! They're a business, first and foremost, and they can do whatever they want. Let's just acknowledge that this is what's going on.

There are other examples, of course. Selling 720p videos instead of 1080p might be fine for displaying on laptops and today's HDTVs, but display technology is only going to get better as the years progress - you can already see the flaws in iTunes HD videos on the new iMacs, with a resolution on the 27" model that's around 1.5 times higher than 1080p. Shipping the iPad with a QVGA display might be fine for using apps and browsing the Web, but in an era where even YouTube's default aspect ratio is 16:9 and WebKit's preparing for a flood of high-DPI displays in new laptops, this brand-new device might seem almost useless in a few years.

I'm not calling out Apple in particular for doing this, or even saying that they need to change their strategy. But the fact remains that the sources of the founts of ingenuity that shape our future have shifted from individual scientists and inventors to giant corporations. They're the ones who will be deciding whether or not we'll be using technology that truly enhances and complements our lives. We shouldn't settle for a "good enough" solution when a better one exists.


  • Yes, you are “calling out Apple in particular for doing this”, and you are contrasting Apple with RED. Only you know why, but I can guess….

    Steve W had this to say on May 14, 2010 Posts: 10
  • The slant to this article is so twisted I don’t know where to start. Have you watched Pirates of Silicon Valley? “Good Enough” is totally Gatesian, not Jobs and Apple. The “crazy Apple patent filings” are to protect IP, a lesson Apple learned early on by being burned for not patenting enough.

    Microsoft can and does “regularly hinder the progress of technologies they hold the patents to, if (when) it’s in their financial self-interest.” In fact with their “Windows Everywhere” philosophy they regularly attempt to influence progress in fields they aren’t even in, because they might be in the future. Hence the coinage of the term “vapourware.”

    Apple’s approach is to strip away to the core essentials and create an satisfying experience for the end user. Then incrementally build on that firm foundation, adding without taking away, the “Less is More” philosophy. There is incredible freedom within self-imposed “limitations”, much like a painter who has selected a limited palette of colours and textures. As a visual artist I know only to well it is often more important what you leave out than what you put in, that is why I have an appreciation for Apple products. It feels like they approach the process like a craftsman. You don’t get a Stradivarius without great technical ability and high artistry combined. The approach is not “form follows function” but rather form and function are fused as one. This is at odds with the rest of the industry where the approach is, “lets throw everything at it and see what sticks.”

    Babblefish had this to say on May 17, 2010 Posts: 7
  • Regarding Apple’s “walled garden”, they are perfectly within their rights to decide what can or cannot enter the “garden”. They aren’t attempting to monopolize the entire market, they just want their quiet (and lucrative) little corner. In other words, “No your dog (derivative cross-platform code) can’t shit in my garden” and/or “No you can’t bring your own topsoil, and we don’t want to risk getting weeds.”

    As Jobs states, developers have options, no one is forcing them to do anything, they can always write apps for Android. But if they want to write apps for Apple, then these are the guidelines. No one expects Sony or Microsoft, or Nintendo to allow anyone and everyone into their “walled gardens” so why should Apple?

    Babblefish had this to say on May 17, 2010 Posts: 7
  • I mostly agree with everything you’re saying, and I’m pretty sure I say as much within the post.

    This is an Apple blog, so I write about things that Apple does, but I don’t necessarily write about things that ONLY Apple does. Of course I recognize that this behavior is not limited to Apple alone… and again, I say as much in the post.

    Josh Rubenoff had this to say on May 17, 2010 Posts: 10
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