Dear device: I forgive you

From CED Magazine, here’s my take on narrowing tolerance for failure and frustration in the Internet video era.

In 1987, when the fictional Wall Street tyrant Gordon Gekko famously hoisted a shoebox-sized mobile phone to his ear, expectations surrounding the performance of portable phones were enormously forgiving. Who gave a whit whether calls might be dropped or whether the voice on the other end might sound at times like that of a confused alley cat braying incoherently?

The film sequence in which actor Michael Douglas strolls at beachside while talking on a wireless phone instantly seared into the collective consumer consciousness, provoking a widely shared reaction among movie-goers: I want one.

Thirty-plus years later, the sequence from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street seems as silly as a Duran Duran music video – and not just because Douglas is prowling the shoreline in a fluffy black robe. The brick-like device and the thick antenna that juts from it drip of early-generation rudiment, at least from the smug perspective of a modern-day smartphone owner.

Attitudes have changed, too. What was once wide latitude for ineffectual performance paired with sky-high costs has narrowed dramatically. In 1984 Motorola’s breakthrough DynaTAC 800x took 10 hours to charge for 30 minutes of talk time, topped out at 30 stored phone numbers and produced a prolific incidence of dropped calls. People still paid $3,995 to get one. Today there is little tolerance for even the slightest of buffering delays when users tap the “play” icon to summon a high-resolution video over an iPhone 6 that costs as little as $199. AT&T leaped to defend its wireless network sanctity in 2010 when a survey from researcher ChangeWave found an average of 4.5 percent of calls were dropped over a three-month period, according to user reports. I imagine Gordon Gekko would have killed for the assurance that 95 percent of his calls would take place unimpeded.

This inverse relationship – tolerance for faults plummets as technology steadily ups its game – reflects a broader psychological tendency. The more accustomed to and the more dependent we become on familiar life contributors – cars, electricity, physicians, spouses – the more we expect of them. It’s during the courtship phase of a new media technology relationship when we are the most forgiving. If the device or application delivers a sufficiently breakthrough experience, we are inclined to let it wobble to its feet, allowing for occasional or even frequent performance lapses.

This helps to explain a phenomenon that probably sends many cable television industry veterans into full-on seethe mode: the willingness of Internet video users to put up with relatively poor performance, reliability-wise. The multichannel video industry has worked mightily over decades to exorcise the ghosts of outages past. Seriously: when’s the last time your cable or satellite video connection actually went on the fritz for a prolonged period of time? It used to happen with some regularity. Now it hardly ever does. Billions of dollars of capital investment will do that.

Imagine, then, the befuddlement industry veterans must feel when they observe how accepting early-generation IP video users seem to be over the inadequacies of their platforms. Netflix streams that vanish, elongated buffering sessions and those spinning on-screen spirals of video doom often are seen merely as temporary obstacles to be vanquished by a little do-it-yourself finagling with the wireless router. The appeal of “over-the-top” video, with its rich interfaces and vast on-demand content reservoirs and its absence of commercial interruption, outweighs the (frequent) performance issues. We’re infatuated, and infatuation means overlooking imperfections.

Ah, but as with romance itself, the honeymoon doesn’t last forever. Recent research published by streaming video specialist Conviva found patience for lousy Internet video sessions is thinning. Conviva’s March 2015 survey of 750 U.S. adults found “stream interruptions, inadequate picture fidelity and other poor streaming experience issues prompt nearly three-quarters of all OTT video viewers to give up in the first four minutes of playback.” Of particular interest is the finding that viewers place the blame across the ecosystem, dividing their ire evenly among the OTT content provider (Netflix, for instance), their ISP and even content delivery networks that manage the invisible plumbing behind the session.

History tells us this narrowing of forgiveness is spawned partly by improvements in the technology, not just by a natural erosion of tolerance. As OTT video gets better, we expect more from it. Meeting elevated expectations is the price new platforms must pay to stay in the game. Just ask Gordon Gekko. “In my book,” he said, “you either do it right, or you get eliminated.”