Thursday, June 24, 2021

Is Easy really better than Free?

Many years ago a friend explained to me why Apple's Itunes music store was a huge success despite the fact that (at the time) there were many ways to acquire digital music for free. Apple realised, he explained, that for most people "Easy is better than free". 

The power of that concept has been proven by Apple and other companies over and over since then but my inner nerd has never been fully comfortable with it. The cost of "Easy" is rarely just financial, invariably you must also sacrifice some functionality as well. 

Most recently this point has been brought home to me once again through the world of TV providers (cable companies). 

First a bit of background: Ireland is a small country with only a small number of free to air TV channels  so most people rely on additional cable, satellite, aerial or internet based services to extend the selection and in particular to access the large range of channels available in the much bigger neighbouring market in the UK. There is an array of options that vary widely in cost, content selection, ease of use and indeed legality. 

In our house we  pay a monthly subscription for a well known satellite TV service. Even though many of the younger generation have dispensed entirely with broadcast TV this satellite provider is still the market leader. Most of the several hundred channels it provides could be freely accessed with a generic satellite receiver that incurred no monthly fee. It does provide some premium channels but services like  Netflix and Amazon prime which subscribe to anyway are worthy alternatives to those premium channels at a lower overall cost.  So why do we and many others still pay every month? 

One answer is that this provider has tied up some popular content with exclusivity agreements but to be honest I think the real answer is their interface is acknowledged to be the slickest and easiest to use on the market. One simple interface allows you to search broadcast channels, on demand channels, recorded shows etc. A simple voice command will record an entire series for you. They even include Netflix, Prime and YouTube on their system so one remote can control everything. 

Easy is better than Free. It annoys me  that I  could cobble together a home grown system (combining satellite receiver / recorder and streaming services) that would provide the same content at a much lower cost but I realise that this would not be a popular solution for the rest of the family so I put up with it.  I even put up with the fact that they often pay over the odds to buy or rent a movie from the included store when I know they could get it cheaper from a different provider. 

Our satellite provider is not cheap and knows how to charge for every possible extra. Easy is not cheap.  There is also a price to be paid in functionality. There are many channels that are available from our satellite dish that do not appear in the standard lists with this service. You can find them via obscure sub menu options that allow manual channel selection but you cannot add them to the menu in any convenient way. In fact you can't really customise the interface at all. It includes some subscription content providers but not all of them Notably it does not allow anyone who will sell or rent you a movie in competition with their own overpriced store. Perhaps the most annoying thing of all though is that there is no way to filter the selection to just the channels and services in your current package. Indeed it will only alert you to the fact that something is not included in your package after you try to play it and then it will nag you to increase your subscription in order to view it. There is one series that I am currently watching that is not available on out main TV through the set top box but which is inexplicably available on the companion app on my computer. I don't know why and it won't tell me why although it does offer to charge me more whenever I try to watch it on the wrong device. 

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