What Steve Said: “HD” vs. “High Quality”

At NewTeeVee Live last week, Om and I asked YouTube co-founder and CTO Steve Chen whether or not YouTube had plans to improve its video quality. There’s been some confusion and finger-pointing over Chen’s reply, so I just want to quickly clear up what happened.

Chen said that he looks at the video experience from a viewers’ perspective, and that users are more upset by long waits for buffering than poor quality videos. He said requests for higher-quality videos have come more from the content creator side. (This was exemplified when, right about this time in the interview, an audience member — I believe it was Galacticast creator and star Casey McKinnon — heckled “HD! HD!” from the audience.)

Chen said his mantra is “good enough” — and, to be certain, that’s taken YouTube very far. He explained that his preference would be to increase access around the world, so that everyone, everywhere, on any device can watch YouTube videos. On that note, Chen said he would also love everyone, everywhere, on any device to be able to upload videos as well. As NTV writer Chris Albrecht wrote of Chen’s remarks at the time, “[YouTube hasn’t] disregarded HD, it’s more about getting people all over the world being able to watch it.” As Chen readily admitted, it doesn’t make much sense to put an HD gloss on the short, casual, personal videos that make up much of YouTube’s library.

While he fell firmly on the side of accessibility over quality, Chen did say YouTube is rolling out experiments to check viewers’ broadband capacities and improve improve video streaming quality if there’s enough bandwidth. Rafe Needleman from CNET’s Webware followed up with Chen in the hallway, and was told such improvements would be moved out of testing and rolled out to all YouTube users within three months.

Needleman didn’t use the term “HD” in his story, but many people, most prominently TechCrunch’s Duncan Riley — who did not attend the conference — used that term to describe Chen’s remarks. I had trouble getting ahold of Riley to correct his story, but he did so tonight, saying the confusion was due to his interpretation of “high quality” as a synonym for “high definition.”

To be fair, this is a new area, and the terms are just being defined, but when companies in our space like Akamai and Vimeo label their products “HD” they are talking about something very specific: showing online video at the standard HDTV resolutions of 720p and 1080i. And that is neither the spirit nor the letter of what Chen said.

Unfortunately, I don’t have video of the Steve Chen interview to post here — while our live-streaming provider Mogulus is great, it is a small startup and has not been able to get us the sessions on demand just yet.