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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Sci Fi Tech Gets It Right

As Marv Albert used to say, YESSSSS!! I was delighted to see this article by S. E. Kramer at Sci Fi Tech. It addresses a longtime pet peeve of mine—no, worse than a pet peeve, a veritable sore spot—and it's one of the few articles I've read that addresses the issue directly. Briefly, the idea is that manufacturers of small personal electronic devices have adopted the strategy of flooding their categories with multiple models, which is a supermarket strategy, meant to crowd competitors off of limited shelf space, when what they should be doing is focusing brand awareness by limiting choice.

I've written about this before, though not specifically where cameras are concerned. But S. E. Kramer's article comes along at an appropriate point for me. Only a few weekends ago, I helped my non-photographer cousin Linda buy a digital camera. We went to a local store that had banks of long rows of nearly identical digicams, which naturally seems totally off-putting to any rational consumer—the job of making a choice prior to purchase is almost as bad as the job of learning all the proliferating and confusing features after purchase. My function was to narrow Linda's choices down to three, at which point she lasered in on her favorite immediately. My further function was to reassure her that she had chosen a good one. Sale. Elapsed time: no more than 15 minutes. Happy retailer, happy customer.

Read at least the last two headers in the Sci-Fi Tech article—from "Phones Are Just the Beginning" on. This is a really important idea that some big name in the camera industry is someday going to find the cojones to try. Choice is good; too much choice is bad.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON, thanks to Eolake

ADDENDUM: For more on this, see Barry Schwarz, "The Tyranny of Choice," Scientific American Mind, December 2004. (Thanks to Seungmin).

ADDENDUM: Not that it really matters, but Linda bought this.

11 Comments:

Blogger doonster said...

Of course, the slightly more intelligent shopper goes looking for the nearest to hand geek/enthusiast and asks for some recommendations (rather like your friend did).
I've become something of a bicycle and camera buying guide amongst those who know me - I always look to boil recommendations down to 2 or 3, then they pick the one they like. Always satisfaction guaranteed.
I've started to approach this kindof decision making from a specification point of view - what must it absolutely have, which ones have it. Start in the middle somewhere.

Fundamentally, though, I agree with the deal on the iPhone. When there's limited choice, it's easy - one will fit your needs more closely than the rest.

Maybe car manufacturers will wake up to this too - now there really is a buying headache.

12:22 PM  
Blogger ctyankee said...

A couple comments ... first, in agreement. I just bought my first Honda after owning Ford or Jeep all my life. I didn't suddenly become enamored with Japanese brands or the quality mystique and would have bought a Ford or Chevy if either offered the vehicle I wanted. And I won't mention the vehicle to try to stick to the point. The point being the choices at time of purchase were very refreshing. I remember the Honda ads featuring people who freaked out when asked "paper or plastic" and thinking "ok, Honda is for really dumb people" but now I finally get it. One vehicle; 4 or 5 trim levels, a few dealer installed options. No ordering from the factory if you want to get one with this engine, that suspension, these wheels in that color. Whatever you want, you can get from dealer stock (yours or a nearby one). No seeing the price skyrocket $2000 when you add some option because you can only get it with "preferred option package B". I'm not saying I'll look to Honda first in the future, but I'd be happier looking at other brands if they simplified things, too.

And, not necessarily in disagreement, I just found it interesting that the author suggests Canon reduce the number of digicam models they sell. It was only a few years ago that Canon announced they would flood the market with something on the order of 22 new models the following year to take over the #1 market share position from Sony ... and they succeeded. Go figure !

12:31 PM  
Blogger falmanac said...

A vast corporate conspiracy to give me what I want? The horror! I like variety, I dare say many others do too.
I've heard some complain that Canon has too many models. That's an odd thing to complain about, and a maybe just a tiny bit elitist too. I'd really like a 1DMk3, just for the 6400 ISO, but I can't afford one, so I'll wait (and hope) for a 40D with the same feature.
Heck, I'll take all the choices I can get. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to custom order a camera? I'd order the highest ISO possible, the most battery power available, and plenty of weather proofing on the high-end. But with an APS-C sensor, 3 fps, and a modest buffer on the low-end. Why pay for stuff I don't use? Many people never shoot above 200 ISO, why should they have to pay for what I think is important?
New tek has decreased the ground between amateurs and pro's considerably. Average people can produce their own music, take care of simple legal business without a lawyer, and buy cameras that are almost professional grade. The middle ground is narrowing to the point where one day, maybe, it'll just be amateurs (like me) and geniuses (not me). Bad news for music labels, bad news for lawyers, bad news for pro photographers. Good news for the rest of us.
"Choice is bad," says the article. What rubbish. Some wag once compared Microsoft to Capitalism & Apple to Socialism. With the former we get infinite choice of hardware, along with infinite risk. With the latter we get security, but only with the features the Great Leader thinks we can handle. I'll stick with my Vaio, my Blackberry, and my 20D, thank you very much.
Should the camera companies be putting every last resource into R&D? Sure that would be nice, but flooding the market is one of the inefficiencies of capitalism. Thus we must use our minds to winnow out what's best. And it's never been easier to research a product. Enjoy!

2:29 PM  
Blogger Dr Hiding Pup said...

The British government has a similar policy. A while back now, they determined that health-care patients ought to have "choice" in where they received treatment. Nobody took to it: of course, what any poorly person wants is to get well as quickly as possible.

Ditto for education.

2:43 PM  
Blogger david vatovec said...

I also helped a friend pick up a digicam last week. It was a nightmare!
After 3 days of online browsing and comparing i actually find out, that almost everybody sells the SAME digicam at a certain price point.
So I said to my friend - don't bother, just ask Yourself how much money You would like to spend and buy the first digicam that is in the price range,... u can't go wrong.
Now, if there were an Apple version,.. :)

6:17 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Falmanac,
I don't think you get it. Canon DOES do what the article is suggesting with its DSLRS...essentially five models, each one for a specific purpose and a specific kind of customer. It's with the digicams that proliferating choice has muddied the waters and made choice difficult and annoying.

Research suggests that what people really want is choice, but a reasonable number of choices. When studies have been done with supermarket products, people buy much more when there are three choices than when there's only one, but when there are thirty choices, sales drop again. People want choice, but only up to a point.

--Mike

6:32 PM  
Blogger Brambor said...

For me, in digital arena, it's really as simple as:

p&s sensors - No
3/4's - No
Foveon - Maybe
Nikon/Canon - Yes
Eclectics (Leica, Hasselblad...) - out of my league

6:56 PM  
Blogger falmanac said...

Mike,
You may be right - I usually err on the side of proliferation. 22 dSLR models would suit me just fine. Am I just looking for the one that "goes to 11?" Probably. However, the Apple ideal bugs me - it seems like a grotesque, and infantilizing, Sovietization of the market place. I remember when Coke/Pepsi was a "choice" and Dr Pepper was for "rebels" - at least that's how they marketed it to us. Now my convenience store has scores of different drinks and I like it. Freedom can be bewildering, even when its merely consumer freedom, but a few of us do like a lot of choices. Maybe your last sentence shouldn't read "people," but most people? I'll concede that much. Cheers.

7:07 PM  
Blogger Bryce Lee said...

So, what did Linda purchase?

8:24 PM  
Blogger bitwareoz said...

Rather than monopolizing shelf space, I think this has more to do with competing arms within a single company. For example, Sony can have whole design/manufacturing arms vying for the best, most innovative product. Good for the workforce I guess.

But I agree that the strategy isn't the best from a consumer point of view. There were at least two occasions where I was tempted to buy a Canon Ixus (the camera you have with you etc) but by the time I decided what I wanted and they started to appear on the shelves, at least two new models had been announced. So I didn't buy one.

Nowadays with digital cameras it's down to the web and people agonizing over minutiae. I always thought it had more to do with good optics and ready means to set focus and exposure accurately, but maybe I'm just old-fashioned. For sure, there's a latent market for a product that does exactly this and isn't made of plastic ... and isn't a Leica :-). Maybe the industry isn't brave enough to go with what they think you REALLY need (and sticking with it for a while) only to be dissed by some turkey on an influential site complaining about the exact positioning of the Qual button. Or maybe they're not willing to acknowledge that the technology has largely plateaued.

9:19 PM  
Blogger Zeming said...

Choice is good, but sometime companies intentionally force you to make choices you don't have to. I have the canon 350d and the auto focus was really bad in low light (I use 50/1.4 mostly at night so I know what the xt can do). I tried my friend's xti, and the auto focus was just so much better. However, it was not from advancement in technology, Canon simply "borrowed" the autofocus sensor from 30d.
Canon could have make a budget dslr with good auto focus and big viewfinder, at the first place. Instead we got the choice between a lacking 350d with "tunnel vision" in the viewfinder and a much more expensive, yet the same image sensor and processor 20d.
I don't think I like this kind of choice.

9:35 PM  

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