Saturday, May 20, 2006

On the assumed value of delays

Sometime ago, I read what an exec from some iPod clone company said in regards to supported formats and available capacity: "we do mp3 now, and eventually we will do wav". Right or wrong, I wondered if there was something to be learnt from this.

Lossy compression schemes such as jpg and mp3 are popular because they provide a (usually) indistinguishable approximation to the real thing while requiring much less space. So if the game is to provide very good content in very little space, then we would lean towards improving lossy compression schemes so that we can squeeze things further and further.

Doing a bit of research, however, it turns out that audiophiles are resorting to lossless compression formats for music more frequently. These, such as FLAC or Monkey's Audio, don't compress nearly as much as mp3. In fact, sometimes they can consume significantly more resources to produce and reproduce. So why would someone do this when a ~200kbps .ogg file is pretty much overkill already? Why would someone deal with larger files instead?

Well, would you feel excited if you downloaded your favorite song in 1 second? I contend the lack of a pause, of a delay, and in fact the lack of temporary hindrance to get what you want prevents you from feeling it is valuable.

The same thing happens with software installers. Do you think a 2ghz computer really has to labor that much to unpack the 15mb compressed file so that the program can be installed? With that kind of CPU, it should be almost indistinguishable from xcopy. To add insult to injury, it used to be the case that messing up the clock of your computer so that hours seemed to go by in a few seconds made installers finish really quickly.

So in reality, lossy compression was a response to dial up connections. Now that bandwidth is relatively cheap and mp3 takes no time to get, we seem to need something larger so that it takes time to get it.

In the same way, why settle for 3mbps divx quickly when you can have 8mbps mpeg2 with more delay? Why settle for simple web pages that have properly presented content in 250kb when you can have the same content presented with 5mb of flash files? Why do you need larger and larger versions of the same thing? Why do you need bloated things like Vista to do essentially the same things you did with Office-style programs ten years ago? Why should things become bigger and bigger just so that it takes more time for you to obtain what you want? Because if not, you would not be inclined to think they are valuable as it would be too easy to get to them.

There is a limit to this. When you do not have access to a broadband connection, all those flashy sites and large files are quite bothersome. The wait is too much for the content. So while there needs to be some delay, it shouldn't be too much.

So here is the question: what is the function that correlates delay and perceived value?

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