I've seen several people new to digital that ask about camera's to get started with and they admit they are completely in the blind about it. Seem's like the most used answer for them is to read up on them and see which has the feature's they need. Why do people get that advice? If they had any clue at all, they probally wouldn't take the time to explain they are clueless. How in the world do they know what feature's they need?
Don, you ask a very good question.
I think that those who respond figure that the individual has at least some knowledge of slr cameras and photography in general. Those that do not have a clue are really at a disadvantage when coming from a p&s, the camera does it all background.
The features that a newbie would need/want really depends upon what they want to take a picture of and just how far into the process they want to get into. One really needs to open up a dialogue with that person to make a recommendation that makes sense and is accurate. How many people are willing to take the time? How many even know the questions to ask?
Olympus, or one has a section on their web site that addresses the problems of the total newbie. it developes the dialogue based on the parameters I stated above. one can at least look there and see hat features the Oly line has and equate the camera suggested to another brand if one were to so choose.
I get asked this question a lot and it is impossible to give an answer. I try to find out the level of knowledge, the photographic goals and the actual level of interest - all very subjective. Only budget is fairly objective. If the person wants to be able to memorialize moments - birthdays, holidays and the like, and has no real interest in photography as an art or hobby, I would steer them to a reliable P&S somewhere around 5MP.
If it is someone with a vague idea that photography might be a fun hobby, but I sense no fire in the belly, I would aim them at a high-end consumer compact camera that is also adjustable. With this, they can learn camera operation and get enough of an understanding to know for themselves what the next camera should be.
If the person is clearly an equipment nut, a high-tech collector who wants to buy one of everything, believing that the person who dies with the most toys - wins, a dSLR is clearly called for. Those present no problems.
Where it gets difficult is the mother or father who has never done any photography, whose kid is blossoming into a sports star. They want a camera that will provide pictures like they see in Sports Illustrated. Sports photography is one of the most demanding specialties in all of photography in terms of skill and experience. No matter the equipment, it will take many, many shoots to begin producing even marginally satisfying work. Even then, the nature of sports shooting means culling 90%+ of all your images, because they are blurred or boring.
When you have zero control of your subject matter, there are times when there just is no good picture to be had. Neophytes look for something to blame - themselves and their equipment. If they picture does not happen, there is nothing that the shooter can do. Covering major league baseball, I was delighted if I could hand the sports editor two pictures from a game. In fact I was delighted if I got one decent shot for publication.
Others might be interested in bird photography, macro photography, large-print landscape work, portraiture, street photography and other very specialized fields where the relationship of the shooter to the instrument - and the software - is something that no outsider can define. In these cases, the choice of camera and lenses are just a starting point. At best one can discuss the factors involved, but making good firm recommendations is simply impossible. How I approach any of these specialties might be totally wrong for the person who is asking.
Too often, there is a belief that the right camera will take them directly to success, when in any of these specialties, it is up to the shooter to spend years in practice to consistently reach even modest goals. In real photography, it is the photographer - not the camera - that makes the great photographs. Obvious from the inside, but to someone outside of the photographic way of life, it seems like obfuscation when the question is not clearly answered. It simply can not be answered.