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This article is from the In-Depth Report Steve Jobs: A Technology Visionary Leaves Huge Legacy
See Inside October 2011

Big Progress on the Little Things

Let's take a step back and praise three unsung trends in consumer electronics

In the trenches of consumer technology, there’s plenty to complain about. Today’s cell-phone contracts are exorbitant and illogical (why has the price of a text message doubled in three years?). Those 15-second voicemail instructions still seem to last forever and use up our expensive airtime (“When you have finished recording, you may hang up”—oh, really?). And laptop batteries still can’t last the whole day.

But here and there, in unsung but important corners of consumer tech, some long-standing annoyances have quietly been extinguished. These developments deserve a lot more praise than they’ve received.

Take the megapixel race. For years the camera industry brainwashed us into believing that a camera’s megapixel measurement somehow indicates the quality of its photographs.

It doesn’t. A lousy photo still looks lousy—even at 45 megapixels. In fact, more megapixels can mean worse images because the more photo sites (light-sensing pixels) you cram onto a sensor, the smaller they get, the less light they collect and the more heat they produce, resulting in “noise” (random speckles).

The megapixel myth was a convenient psychological cop-out for consumers, who longed for a single, comparative statistic like miles per gallon for a car or gigabytes for an iPod. The camera companies played right along because it meant that they didn’t have to work on the factors that really do produce better pictures: the lens, the software and, above all, the sensor size.

In the past two years, though, a quiet revolution has taken place. The megapixel race essentially shut itself down. The megapixel count came to rest at 10 or 12 megapixels for pocket cameras, maybe 16 or 18 for professional ones—and the camera companies began putting their development efforts into bigger sensors. Cameras such as the Canon S95, the Sony NEX-C3 and Micro Four Thirds models pack larger sensors into smaller bodies.

Another example: power cords. We’ve all griped at one time or another about our drawers full of ugly, mutually incompatible chargers. Every new cell-phone model, even from the same manufacturer, used to require a different cord (and car and plane adapters), racking up another $50 per phone sale per customer.

And then, one great morning, electronics executives must have confronted themselves in the mirror, filled with shame, and decided to shut down that extortionist, environmentally disastrous profit center.

In Europe, for example, all the major cell-phone makers agreed to standardize their cords. Today every phone model uses exactly the same interchangeable micro USB power cord.

Similarly, the micro USB’s cousin, the mini USB, has been making its own conquests. Now you can charge up most BlackBerries, Bluetooth headsets, e-book readers, music players and GPS receivers by connecting a USB cable to either a power plug or your laptop. You can also use the same 30-pin charging cord on every one of the 200 million iPhones, iPads and iPod touches ever made.

Finally, it’s time to give thanks for the most important revolution of all: the simplicity movement.

For decades the rule in consumer tech was that whoever packs in more features wins. Our gadgets quickly became complex, cluttered and intimidating.

But then came the iPod, a music player with fewer features than its rivals (no radio, no voice recorder); it became the 800-pound gorilla of music players. Then the Flip camcorder—so simple, it didn’t even have a zoom—snapped up 40 percent of the camcorder market (until Cisco bought and, inexplicably, killed it). And the Wii, a game console whose controller has half as many buttons as the Xbox’s or the PlayStation’s and whose graphics look Fisher-Price crude, became a towering success, outselling its rivals year after year.

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