Why HD adoption is so slow

HD Adoption – will it eventually happen?

The High Definition era of television officially began in 1998 in the United States. We first received HD televisions at that time, and HD broadcasts–though few and far between–started showing up. As of February 2009, the adoption of the HD standard in the United States stands at about 35-40%, depending on whose charts you read.  So why is HD Adoption not higher?

Most of that ground has been gained in the last 3 years and can safely be attributed primarily to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, our current crop of HD games consoles. Put simply, 11 years after hitting the market, HD remains a largely niche player with roughly one third of the television market. One HD movie format has already come and gone, the other is struggling against it’s SD (or more properly, ED) forebear, DVD. Why?

In the early days it was obvious: HDTV’s were insanely expensive, very little programming was available and most people just couldn’t justify the cost for what they got out of it compared to what they put into it. Those are the easy answers, and the ones most of HDTV’s opponents and proponents most often invoke–and they’re also true. But they are not the whole story, and the reasons behind HD’s snail-like adoption rate include many factors that people seldom consider.

Let’s begin with “ease of use”. When HDTV models first hit, they were expensive and yielded little benefit, but at the least they were easy enough to use. Those early TV’s primarily supported Component input cables–plug it in and voila-it works. The price/features ratio still wasn’t there, but it was fairly easy to make it work, just like it’s easy to make your old SD TV and DVD player work with S-Video, composite input, or whatever. These connections were standardized, and you could pretty much plug any device into another with a matching connector and be assured it would work.

Then along came HDMI, and it came with a pretty cool promise: Audio and Video in a single, easy to use cable. Sounds like a dream come true, right? Instead what we got is a nightmare. Different HDMI devices use different versions of HDMI, and often enough those devices carry sketchy compatibility at best. Recently we got a brand new 32″ HDTV for the bedroom and were pretty happy that a few months ago we’d bought a nice upscaling DVD player that would go well with an HDTV. Within an hour of connecting the two, however, we learned how very wrong that premise was as the picture would randomly begin blinking in and out, flashing an HDMI sync error. A little research revealed that while the TV runs HDMI 1.3, the DVD player runs HDMI 1.2, which are frequently-but not unilaterally-incompatible. And therein lies the crux of the problem.

HDTV is confusing for the average and the tech savvy consumer alike. While the latter can easily adapt to the confusion the former usually does not, but more importantly even that that, both types of consumer are just as open to frustration, and the advent of this “moving target” we call HDMI has only made the matter worse for everyone involved. That a 6 month old DVD player and a brand new TV, both with physically identical connections, will not work together properly, is absurdity at its finest. My final recourse in the issue was to go out and purchase a brand new DVD player to compensate for the problem, and after some research I was able to find one with the newer HDMI protocol, which finally works for us. While I, an obvious Nerdy guy, was able to figure this out on my own, what is the consumer who knows nothing about protocols supposed to do? He is at the mercy of his retailer’s tech support “gurus”.

And therein lies the bulk of the problem for the HDTV phenomenon: too much complexity at too high a price with too little adherence to any sort of Industry Standard. When you have multiple versions of the same connector type preventing your average consumer (read: your target market!) from simply plugging his devices in and using them without a struggle, you have seriously screwed up. Is it any wonder, then, that it’s taken 11 years for HD adoption to reach even the meager 35-40% that it has in the US? Honestly, I’d say it’s a miracle it’s even reached that point, and if it weren’t for the HD games consoles I seriously doubt it would have even reached this level of saturation this soon.

While the tech savvy “elite” (you know who you are, we’re with you! 🙂 often harp on the average consumer as being “unsophisticated” because they don’t understand the complexities of whatever trend in electronics has the world on fire this week, I think there’s another side that you don’t often see considered. That side is, simply put, that the average consumer is in some ways more sophisticated than the tech savvy consumer. How so, you ask? With the Nerdy consumer, the electronics industry giants need do little else besides show us a shiny new technology and our e-peen’s instantly extend and turn toward the shiny new toy. All sense of reason disappears and we’re overcome by what can only truly be discussed as an irrational desire to get said shiny new thing for ourselves, and if it costs a bundle, screw it, that’s what it takes to stay on the bleeding edge, including HD adoption.

But the “average” consumer asks a few more questions. He wonders, “how will this make my life better?” He asks, “Will this cause or alleviate frustration?” He asks, “How much does it cost, and is what it gives me worth the price?” In short, it’s a bit more difficult to pry dollars from the hands of the average consumer than from the tech geek. We could discuss the why’s and wherefore’s of this all day and never reach a happy conclusion, but I’ll be the first to admit that on more than one occasion I’ve felt and succumbed to the allure of some new gadget or device that ultimately ended up being either more trouble than it’s worth or, worse yet, becoming a paperweight.

So shortly what we come to is this: The Nerdy consumer is savvy in his ability to sort out and hack around the countless problems that the HDTV generation has brought with it, but the “average” consumer is also savvy: he simply refuses to struggle with an expensive device or series of devices. He is paying $1,000 for a new TV and $400 for a new game console, to say nothing of the accoutrements to get the most out of these devices (an expensive sound system is a must when it comes to HD movies and games if you want to enjoy all that they offer), and he has an expectation that for the expense he’s laying out he should be able to go home, plug it all in, and it should simply work.

And he’s right. It should. But too often with HD generation consumer electronics, they simply don’t work as advertised, and that is unacceptable.

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