Monday, January 10, 2011

HD Radio's Rate of Decay

Obviously HD Radio's on my mind again. As expected, the news after the Consumer Electronics Show broke down along party lines. The magazines and websites such as Radio and Radio World that cater to radio industry professionals gushed about all the exciting new HD Radio products and features (many times pulling copy straight from the iBiquity press release).

Go to news sources outside of the industry, however, and HD Radio's barely mentioned. Inside the industry, HD Radio leads the list of new car features. Outside, smartphone connectivity and interactive software lead the list of new car features.

HD Radio's been an emerging technology since 2004. It did have a lot of potential (which public radio was quick to latch on to), but for the bulk of radio broadcasters, it's been treated and marketed as a haphazard answer to the threat of satellite radio. Since that time, we've seen the rise of the iPod, then the smart phone, and now the tablet, each providing more and more options for discovering music, enjoying favorite music, and -- most importantly -- sharing music socially. Yet HD Radio market copy still defines itself in terms of satellite radio.

It's marketing talks about having no subscription fees (unlike satellite radio), having specialized music channels (just like satellite radio, although not really as many stations simply simulcast their on-air signal), and great digital sound (just like satellite radio, although both HD Radio and SIRIUS/XM do compressed digital formats that are no great shakes sonically).

Is HD Radio really going to be the next big thing, or another grand failure? If the latter, it won't be the first. Player pianos really took off as a home entertainment system in the late 1800's. When phonographs came along in the early 20th century, player pianos were marketed as the smart choice. They sounded better, after all.

But better sound wasn't really what people were after. The phonograph took up less space than a player piano. It had a more varied sound. The player piano sounded like a piano. But depending on the record, the phonograph could sound like a piano, an orchestra, a bluegrass band, an opera singer, or anything. Manufacturers didn't give up. They kept improving the instruments, replacing foot pedals with electric mechanisms; adding more parameters to the hole-punch recorders to achieve a more natural sound and so on.

But despite these improvements, they couldn't overcome the biggest drawback -- people simply found the phonograph more convenient than a piano. And so all the improvements made in player pianos were in some sense for naught -- the battle had already been lost. What the public wanted in home entertainment had moved beyond the 19th century piano in the parlor.

Has the same thing happened to HD Radio? After seven years of continual marketing, there's still very little demand (or even awareness) of the technology among consumers -- consumers that very much want a smart phone or a tablet. Consumers that very much want an Internet connection in their car. Will all the vaunted improvements to HD Radio recently announced seem as quaint years from now as the electrification of the player piano?

I don't think we'll have to wait too long to find out.

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