Megapixels don't matter (but other things do)
April 22, 2005
Watching the hyper-rapid progress of digital cameras over the last few years has been like seeing a series of time-lapse photographs of a flower blooming. It has provided a fascinating view of the way technology markets in general tend to develop.
In particular, it has shown how the basic performance of high-tech products advances so quickly that it soon exceeds the needs of most customers. With digital cameras, for example, performance was originally defined almost entirely by the resolution of their images, which in turn was determined by the number of pixels packed onto their sensors. It wasn't long ago that affordable digital cameras had only about a million pixels, or one megapixel. The images they produced were noticeably poorer than what you'd get with a traditional film camera. When camera companies rolled out two-megapixel models, that marked a huge advance that had value for just about every camera buyer. You could immediately see the difference in the clarity of the images you printed. The jump to three megapixels also improved the quality of most people's photographs, though the improvement was much less dramatic. But subsequent jumps in the megapixel count - to four, to five, to six, to eight, and so on - have provided less and less value to most users. For standard size prints, you just can't see the difference in quality. In many ways, in fact, the additional megapixels render the cameras less attractive to run-of-the-mill buyers because they dramatically increase the size of the image files, making them harder to store, manipulate, and share.
There's a name for this phenomenon. It's called "overshooting," and it was first documented by the business researcher Clayton Christensen in his book The Innovator's Dilemma. Christensen showed, through examples such as the disk-drive businesss, that technology vendors have such strong incentives to push forward the performance of their goods - it's the only way to stay ahead of the competition and actually turn a profit - that almost inevitably that performance comes to exceed the needs of mainstream buyers. The products overshoot the market.
That's exactly what's happened with digital cameras. But the evolution of the camera market reveals something else as well. When a product goes beyond buyers' needs on the basic performance criterion (pixel count, in this case), those buyers start to place much greater importance on other factors. So camera buyers start to demand better performance in, say, shutter lag, battery life, lens quality, or controls. And, slowly but surely, they pay less and less attention to megapixels. Progress doesn't stop, in other words; it just shoots off in new directions.
If you're in the business of selling technology products, whether digital cameras or MP3 players, server computers or enterprise software applications, you'd be wise to pay close attention to the overshooting effect. The way you adapt your product development and marketing programs to the inevitable shifts in the way buyers measure your product's value will determine your long-term success. And if you're a buyer of those products, you should also pay attention to overshooting. If you don't, you'll end up paying more than you have to to get more than you need.
I think there are better analogies to "overshooting" than digital cameras.
The convenience of digital has changed the conception of image quality, as all but the very highest-end cameras the image quality of digital suffers in comparison to even the least expensive film cameras. I do agree that megapixels, like megahertz, are a flawed measure of quality.
In addition, the overall experience of using a digital camera suffers significantly when compared to that of a film camera, usually because of what is termed "shutter lag", essentially the time it takes for the camera to register the pressing of the shutter release. In film camera it's not uncommon for this to be as little as 7 milliseconds -- in digital it is common for this to be 1/2 second or more (and by then the kid is out of the picture frame.)
In short, though the theory of "overshooting" is no doubt correct, I don't think digital photography offers a very good analogy. It by no means overshoots what the market expects in any of the important ways: cost, speed, ease of use, quality, etc.
Posted by: tim at April 22, 2005 11:08 AM
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