Sunday, August 5, 2007

Wide Screens and Best Buy

Let me tell you a little something. To begin with, I must confess that I am not claiming this is a true story, I heard it from someone a good while back, but it serves me nicely with my point down the road, so here it goes:

The Tale of Blue Crystals
Once upon a time there was a company in the market to make a laundry detergent. Their name is unknown. What matters, however, is that their R&D department really had no idea how to make a laundry detergent. The kind that works i.e. cleans shirts, jeans and the like. Their detergent sucked. It did not work. Consumers kept buying "Tide" and largely ignored the inferior product despite its smaller price tag.

Being unable to afford good engineering, I can only guess, the company goes ahead and hires a marketing guy soon to become known as "Blue Crystals Dude". The blue crystals idea was simple: he proposed the company cuts production costs by stopping using expensive ingredients in their product, effectively making matters even worse. And to improve sales he suggested adding blue crystals to the "formula": a dirt-cheap and harmless substance that looked kind of blue indeed. The crystals did not do anything. They were just blue. However, magic crystals allowed the company to package a crappy product into a shinier box, slap "Improved! Now with blue crystals!" on it, and sell at a hefty price.

What do you think happened? Customers loved it!

Cost Cutting in LCD Market.
Similar thing just happened in the market for LCD panels for notebooks, and the disease of blue crystals is steadily spreading onto desktop monitors as well. The disease is called "Wide Screen" and this is how it was born:

Apparently some marketing genius picked up his high school math book and found out that the area of a square is significantly larger than area of a rectangle given an identical diagonal width of the two. In practice is means that the area of 14" LCD panel with an aspect ratio of 4:3 is larger than the area of 14" LCD with a ratio of 9:6.

That translates into this: a 9:6 display is cheaper to make than a 4:3 display of the same diagonal width.

Wide Screens - the Blue Crystals of LCDs
Blue crystals ruthlessly strike again, while it is unknown which company hit first, but the decision was made to take a full size SXGA screen (1280 x 1024) and simply chop off some pixels at the top, reducing overall display area to save on manufacturing costs. That means making a display smaller: only 1280x800.

To make sure consumers won't revolt, the marketing term of "Wide Screen" was born, to make suckers feel like they are gaining something from this cost-cutting exercise. Never mind that horizontal resolution did not get any "wider", only vertical pixels disappeared, forcing consumers scroll down on pretty much any web site, any document, any photo or anything not tiny. The world largely went back in time to pathetic 800 vertical pixels.

Usability Issues and WebSites running Wide
Eight hundred is your new total display height. Now, if you subtract the pixels needed for your browser’s mandatory menu, title bar and status bar, you will end up with roughly 650 pixels available for a web site you happened to open. However all web sites must have their own top level menu, a logo and such. takes 130 pixels for those, so even after you maximize your browser window, you end up with only 520 pixels left for the actual content. Welcome to 2007.

How about TVs?
Every time I bitch about this to my friends I hear nonsense that goes like "wide screens are the future: look at the TVs for god's sake!". Come on, dudes: you cannot compare TV screens to computer monitors. You watch moving picture on a TV, and you read text on a computer. Well... most of us and most of the time. Video and text are very much different in how people perceive and consume them. Books are not wide, folks. Your eyes cannot follow lines that are longer than just a couple of inches: that is why newspapers, the only paper media in "wide" format, use freakin columns. And not only that: newspapers have plenty of "vertical pixels" as well.

Therefore do not kid yourself: N diagonal inches in 4:3 gives you much more usable real eastate than 9:6 of the same width.

It is interesting to note, that most web designers keep producing vertically oriented designs one after another. It became almost a norm to only see a site's top-level navigation in default browser window: to get a glimpse of what's on there you're forced to maximize, enjoy empty "ears" on both sides of your wide screen and, of course, scroll down.

Marketing at Work
Did customers fight back? Nope. They loved blue crystals again. Today it is virtually impossible to buy a notebook with a full-sized LCD display. Believe it or not, I even saw software people write in their blogs "... First thing I want for my new laptop is to have a wide screen, cuz I like to watch movies on a plane..." Whoever you are, the blue crystals dude, you are Genius - I must give it to you. Making college educated folks to blog "I want my next laptop to miss roughly 200 pixels" is something you can proudly report back to your marketing professor.

I looked for a notebook with a full-sized 1280x1024 LCD. It does not exist. Or maybe I did not look long enough. I played with newegg and pricegrabber, I googled, I even propelled myself to a nearest friendly "Best Buy", to no avail.

Which brings me to my second, smaller rant for today.

What the Hell is BestBuy selling?
My experience with Best Buy has always been limited to rare and isolated events whenever I needed to buy some blank CDs urgently enough to pass on and other internet shops. Basically it means I opened my wallet at Best Buy... well... maybe once in my life.

Jesus motherloving GOD!!! Have you been to Best Buy lately? Five or maybe seven years ago it used to be a place where cool geeky teens would go to find out what new and exciting is out there. Best Buy was a perfect place to waste you lunch drooling over some newest gadget they happened to put up on display that day. Not anymore.

Best Buy sells... How do I put it nicely? Well... they sell obsolete shit. I am serious, I am not joking. Check this out: they sell portable CD players! "How would a CD by itself be portable?" you ask, but that is beyond me. Best Buy sells them. Yes, these antiques from the 80s and they call them portable. Sure. Anyone can easily load one of those into a sizeable male purse. (I have semi-European roots). In case you're still not convinced that Best Buy turned into a history museum, I have another one for you: they have a dedicated isle for telephones. The kinds you plug into wall-mounted outlets. Remember those? Just like the ones grandmother used to curse at before she passed away in 1988...

I honestly do not know anybody who still uses land lines to talk or rides a horse to work.

By the way, 1GB of decent DDR2 RAM is about $140 at Best Buy. Which is roughly 250% more than is selling it for. Maintaining an isle dedicated to land line phones would cost you, I reckon...

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