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If only Apple made a digital camera

What happens when electronic devices too complicated for regular human beings become the norm, not the exception?

My wife doesn't know it but I'm looking to surprise her with a new digital camera for her birthday. Problem is that her birthday was two weeks ago and I'm still shopping. The bigger problem is that I'm no closer to finding the right digital toy than I was when I began searching a couple of months ago. Not that there's any lack of selection or that the prices are out of reach. Just the opposite. In fact, there are more choices than ever and prices are fairly reasonable by historical standards.

So what's wrong? Chalk it up to gizmo overload.

My wife's not going to need half of the features that manufacturers stuff into the units I've examined. I suppose she'd be able to eventually figure out how to use most of these cameras but there would be a phonebook-size product manual to master.

Technology buyers have had to put up with this nonsense for the better part of the last couple of decades. We're made to feel stupid again and again and again.

Maybe I'm being a knucklehead about all this but my hunch is that a lot of people are in the same boat. You wind up scratching your head trying to make sense of a dizzying array of advertised features. For salesmen, it's the equivalent of a full-time employment act. For the rest of us, it's misery.

Don't let's dump only on digital camera makers. Have you gone shopping for a cell phone recently? The relatively simple Nokia cell phone that I have comes with a Cingular interface that's utterly brain dead. The design is so flawed that it reminds me each time I use it never to buy another Cingular cell phone again.

Or how about televisions? Are you ready to explain the advantages and disadvantages of an HD-ready system versus one with HD already built in? Care to recite the sundry pluses and minuses as you choose among plasma, LCD and DLP screens?

Technology buyers have had to put up with this nonsense for the better part of the last couple of decades. We're made to feel stupid again and again and again. Maybe we'd be more willing to accept our lot if Apple Computer hadn't had the audacity to remember that products are supposed to serve human beings, not the other way around.

Remember the iPod? (Note to myself: That would be a nifty slogan for a mass consumer rebellion.) It's no surprise that this little MP3 player has been the centerpiece of Apple's revival. The elegance of the product's design has made all the difference. You pick up the device and you just get it. Apple makes a big deal of its design edge over the rest of the technology industry, and rightly so. The company's products--including the iPod, the Macintosh and the online music store--reflect an attention to detail that rivals should study.

Is it really that hard? Beats me, but Apple's designers just do a better job putting themselves into real peoples' shoes. The upshot: Apple does not waste folks' time by coding in a lot of stupid, confusing features. Why can't other companies do the same? Apple doesn't have a monopoly on smart people. The tech business is filled with brilliant engineers and product designers.

What's often missing is the management rigor to say, "Stop!"

Speaking at a conference hosted by the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, Sony boss Howard Stringer gave voice to the frustration of product design run amok.

"It's exhausting trying to win on every front and marketing across so many products. Every Sony engineer loves his own product?-an electronic toothbrush with a camera?"

Interesting hyperbole but Sir Howard made his point. There's a fine line between feature-rich and feature overload. Somewhere along the line Sony forgot that lesson. Is it any wonder that it churned out a series of so-so products consumers ignored?

At least someone in authority at Sony recognizes there's a problem. The crying shame is that most of the technology industry still believes things are just hunky-dory.