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Analog Angle Blog

Product proliferation is driving me crazy–and we do it, too.

Product choice is good, there's little question about that. When you can select from among a wide variety of products in a given category—whether at the supermarket, consumer-electronics vendor, or book source—you're likely to find something that you want, at a price you feel is OK, and the competition among products works to the consumer's benefit.

But at the same time, it can become overwhelming. I recently was looking for a basic digital camera ($100 range) to replace a Canon Sureshot (8 Mpixels) which was operating erratically after several years of hard life. I decided to start with Canon again, since I assumed that their newer models would likely have a similar user interface, form factor, and functions as the one I had.

I checked out the Canon site and was soon overwhelmed with the number of basic cameras and families they had. For some of them, their niche was obvious, such as ruggedized or water-resistant. But for others, I could not see the actual differences, except by a careful read-through of the product specifications. I soon felt like the fellow in the Max Ernst painting to the left, Man's head puzzled by the flight of a non-Euclidean fly .

I don’t mean to pick on Canon here. I found out that it's the same when you look for a GPS unit: so many families and so many products within each family, and that's just from a single vendor. Some are clearly targeted (such as for hikers or bikers) but still, an overwhelming set of choice remained. What I really needed from the vendors was a decision tree or selection flowchart, and most don't have that.

I suppose somehow it makes sense to have so many models each with their own twist; I certainly don't understand the nuances of production and distribution in the consumer-product business. But you do have to wonder if the cost of having all the different production runs and sub-runs, bills of materials, labeling, packaging, documentation, order-entry set-up, and support wipes out whatever market and profit benefit there is to having so many similar products. We engineers would never do anything so foolish, right?

Or maybe we would . Look at the product portfolio of any major analog IC vendor, for example, and you'll see an astonishingly wide and complex array of offerings for basic building blocks, such as op amps or converters. Yes, each one has its place and role, but still, it's a lot to look at and decide among.

Some components, for example, are truly outstanding in one or two parameters, and are “merely” pretty good in others. In contrast, other offerings may not be especially outstanding in any one specification, but are very, very good in many of them. These are complex and subtle tradeoffs that the designer has to make when working the BOM when judging which one to use. Fortunately, most vendors offer selection guides to help you narrow down your choices, based on your needs and priorities.

Do you find product proliferation in consumer end-products to be a problem? Has it ever caused you to just “give up” because you couldn't decide which model to get??

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