Many photographers—many of us—would like it if there were a radically simplified DSLR. There never will be, however.
I have had some conversations with readers indicating that many people don't have a very clear idea of what's technologically possible or plausible in camera design. Some of those people feel that what's on offer is pretty much all it's possible for the camera companies to make, and if they could do anything differently, they would. Without paddling too far up that particular tributary, it should at least be obvious to everyone that a simplified DSLR is a valid possibility—all the would be required would be to start with a complicated one and take stuff out.
Others will argue that technological plausibility and market viability are two different things. And they're right. It's entirely possible that a simple DSLR would appeal to such a small subset of the buying public that its development would never pay for itself. Too small a niche, in other words.
But let's put aside those objections too, and stipulate that the majority of camera buyers would like, appreciate, and wish to buy a simple camera (that's assuming facts not in evidence, I realize. Follow the logic). There still would never be a radically simplified DSLR.
Why? Simply because none of us could ever agree how to define "simple." What's extraneous to you is essential to me, and what's essential to me is extraneous to the next guy. If you started with one of today's radically over-featured electronic wonders and deleted 90% of all the fripperies that weren't absolutely necessary, here's what the camera companies would hear, over and over again, from everybody: "I absolutely love the idea of your new Nonetax ABC, and I had been planning to buy one—until I found out that it doesn't have [feature x]. Why oh why couldn't you have built the Nonetax exactly like it is, but with [x]?"
"I absolutely need hot pixel mapping because I do astrophotography. How could you have left that out?"
"I absolutely must have mirror lockup because the shutter noise scares praying mantises. What were you thinking? There are thousands of us mantis photographers, as you can see if you go to alt.binaries.insectivore."
"Sensor cleaning is not optional for me because I do all my photographing in a drywall factory."
"Multi-point focusing is a must when photographing flocks of budgerigars in the wilds of Busta Rotton."
Everybody's "must have" would be slightly different from the next person's, because we all have different needs and we all have gotten used to having certain things from past cameras we've owned and loved.
So we'd all like a camera that was stipped to just the essentials. The problem is that everybody's essentials are different. In light of that reality, the best a camera designer can do is to lard on the features with a spatula—and even then, people come up with things they wish were there, but aren't.
Same as it ever was.
Featured Comment by Adam Richardson: "I work at frog design, one of the world's largest product design consultancies, and so am intimately familiar with the challenges posed by the paradoxes described here. It doesn't just apply to SLRs, but virtually every kind of category: consumer, industrial, services, software, hardware, you name it.
"Unfortunately there aren't easy answers. There is a lot of truth that people buy on features, but then often come to regret the plenitude of features once they later live with the product. Unfortunately that doesn't prevent them from re-requesting more features the next time they buy. So-called opportunity costs are the problem.
"For this side of problem, I refer you to this excellent article in the New Yorker by James Surowiecki about why feature creep occurs (answer: customers).
"On the other side, Rob Haitani, who was the software architect for the original Palm Pilot, says that companies not making considered edits of features is a cop-out. I blogged some quotes from him from an interview he did years ago.
"In the camera realm, the closest to the Palm is probably Pure Digital, who make the Flip and Minio super-cheap digital cameras and camcorders. Unlike the large Japanese corporations they compete against, who are primarily hardware companies pursuing specifications and feature bragging rights, Pure sees itself as a software company who happens to make hardware. They have a very different perspective that focuses on fun, simplicity, and the equipment getting out of the way. As a result they are #2 behind Sony in the camcorder market, after three years of being in it, and achieved something like 14,000% growth (not a typo). Of course, they are not competing with SLRs.
"But we have seen this play before: The first mass adoption of film SLRs in the '70s and '80s, which led to giant zoom lenses being carried around to snap vacation pics. People got fed up with it and realized that small cameras did just fine. The same thing will happen today—a lot of people who are today using SLRs will eventually 'give up' and shift to point-and-shoots or camera phones. But for the time being, SLRs will continue to be the biggest-growing area."