The “Good Enough” Issue
It's nice to think that the future is designed by teams of scientists and engineers who are on the cutting edge of innovation, and who exemplify the potential that individual intelligence and ingenuity have to shape society at large. But although this is partially true, many of these people are either employed or underwritten by giant corporations, which complicates this ideal. Since these companies own any and all intellectual property developed by those currently under their employ, they can and do regularly hinder the progress of technologies they hold the patents to, if it's in their financial self-interest. (Hence the crazy Apple patent filings that regularly appear online and are never heard of again.)
Sometimes, when corporations—like, for example, camcorder manufacturers—discourage further development of game-changing technologies in order to prevent cannibalizing their existing product line, a start-up can provide a breakthrough product like the RED ONE camera, a professional digital video camera that emulates the resolution and vibrance of 35mm film. But mostly, the future is locked up under NDAs and a restrictive patent system, without much hope of reaching the public at large. This is just as true of Apple as other companies. The company routinely adopts technologies that aren't excellent, but "good enough" for consumers to accept.
When the iTunes Music Store was first introduced, Apple elected to sell its catalog in the form of 128kbps AAC files—very compressed audio that was terrible to listen to on quality speakers. Still, they were good enough for consumers to pay $0.99 for, small enough to fit on the relatively low-capacity iPods on sale at the time, and the quality didn't really make a difference when listening with the mediocre pack-in white earbuds. The decision was acceptable in 2003, when most other digital music stores sold their wares at a similar bitrate, but seven years later it's a different story.
While stores like Bandcamp sell lossless versions of songs in formats like FLAC, iTunes has only doubled the bitrate of its music—256kbps AAC files are still the only audio format available in the store. This might be understandable if Apple didn't feel like selling its music in a third-party codec like FLAC, but Apple has already developed its own Apple Lossless Audio Codec. I would guess that the reason iTunes doesn't sell ALAC files in the store has to do with how Apple markets iPods and iPhones. You can claim up to ten times more songs fit on any given device if they're AAC rather than lossless. Or maybe Apple just doesn't have enough capacity in its data centers to handle the extra bandwidth lossless downloads would require. Regardless, Apple decided to sell an inferior product because it aligned best with its own interests. Which is perfectly okay! They're a business, first and foremost, and they can do whatever they want. Let's just acknowledge that this is what's going on.
There are other examples, of course. Selling 720p videos instead of 1080p might be fine for displaying on laptops and today's HDTVs, but display technology is only going to get better as the years progress - you can already see the flaws in iTunes HD videos on the new iMacs, with a resolution on the 27" model that's around 1.5 times higher than 1080p. Shipping the iPad with a QVGA display might be fine for using apps and browsing the Web, but in an era where even YouTube's default aspect ratio is 16:9 and WebKit's preparing for a flood of high-DPI displays in new laptops, this brand-new device might seem almost useless in a few years.
I'm not calling out Apple in particular for doing this, or even saying that they need to change their strategy. But the fact remains that the sources of the founts of ingenuity that shape our future have shifted from individual scientists and inventors to giant corporations. They're the ones who will be deciding whether or not we'll be using technology that truly enhances and complements our lives. We shouldn't settle for a "good enough" solution when a better one exists.