The Possible Roads Ahead

   

Is it possible to predict where Nikon is headed?

original: 6/4/06
update: 6/20/06
second update: 6/27/06 (stuff in red)
third update: 8/9/06 (stuff in blue)

It seems that people are still reading this article incorrectly. I see posts on various forums saying that "Thom is predicting..." No, that's not quite correct. This is a provocative think piece, attempting to get into the planning head of Nikon's DSLR lineup and see if the past has anything to say about what the future might look like. If you'd like my personal prediction (based upon lots of different information), then that would be a D3h and several new lenses at Photokina, plus a D80-type of camera either at Photokina or sometime before the end of the year. This is mostly consistent with my 2006 predictions made earlier (with the addition of moving the D80 up from PMA 2007 to a late 2006 launch instead).

Maybe I should have called it a prediction, since the D80 hypothesis was dead on.

The recent introduction of the D2xs reminds us that Nikon can often be more predictable in a sea of change than anyone thinks. The pro cameras have been like clockwork: the film cameras on perfect eight-year intervals right through the everyone-was-surprised-to-see-it F6; the digital cameras getting regular revisions on near 18-month boundaries and completely new designs at perhaps four-year intervals (1999, 2003, 2007?). Consider:

Date of Intro Months from Previous Model
6-1999 - D1
2-2001 20 D1h, D1x
7-2003 29 (49 from D1 to D2)

D2h

9-2004 15 D2x
6-2006 21 D2xs

So Nikon is probably working on as little as 18-month minor revision and as much as four-year major revision intervals with the pro DSLRs. That leads one to expect:

12-2007 18 (53 from D2 to D3) D3h
6-2008 18 D3x

Slide those dates just a tad and you get: PMA 2008 = D3h, Photokina 2008=D3x. Not only entirely plausible, but I'd have to say that anything faster than that would show Nikon speeding up their engineering.

While we're on the pro cameras, so what does a D3 look like? Given the time frame involved:

D3h

  • 10-12mp APS
  • Full DX at 8 fps, HS Crop at 10-12 fps
  • Direct hard drive connection, built-in wireless
  • Real time histograms in viewfinder
  • Improved AF system

D3x

  • 24mp FF
  • FF at 3 fps, HS DX Crop at 5 fps
  • Direct hard drive connection
  • Real time histograms in viewfinder
  • Improved AF system

Of course, I've been wrong before ;~). But I think those would be reasonable targets for substantive change, albeit a little conservative. The D3h stays a PJ and sports-oriented camera targeted at speed, the D3x stays a high-resolution camera. And yes, 24mp is my guess based upon rumblings out of Japan. I don't think that could be on an APS sensor, so, that warrants my FF guess. (Technically, it could be on an APS sensor, but then we'd have photosites as small as the Coolpix cameras. Somehow I think that won't be the direction.)

What I really would want to see in the D3 series is that modularity return (removable finders, interchangeable backs), but somehow I don't think it will. But here's the way I'd design the next pro Nikon series:

D3

  • Modular body (interchangeable finder, back, and storage modules); the body is the host camera brains and control system, power source, lens mount, mirror box, shutter, and support system while everything else gets added on:
  • 10-12mp APS High Speed Back (8 fps DX crop, 12 fps HS crop)
  • 24mm FF Low Speed Back (3 fps FF, 5 fps DX crop)
  • 12mp Black and White Back
  • Prism finder with real time displays (e.g. histograms)
  • Waist finder
  • Card storage module (2x CompactFlash or 2x SecureDigital)
  • Drive storage module (40, 80, 120GB hard drive)
  • Wireless module (1x CompactFlash for backup, WiFi)

Note that such a design allows a pro to buy multiple backs for a common "body," thus tailoring their shooting for any individual task they encounter. That would definitely be better than where we are today, with different bodies being optimized for different tasks.

This leaves us the consumer DSLR lineup to discuss:

Date of Intro Months from Previous Model
2-2002 - D100
12-2003 22 D70
4-2005 16

D70s

4-2005 - D50
12-2005 8 (from last) or 46 (from D100) D200

Again, one could guess an 18-month cycle, although we don't have quite as much info to deduce it from. If Nikon were following that pattern predictably, then the D70 would be replaced sometime between now and the end of 2006, the D50 updated to a D50s in that same time period, and the D200 updated to a D300 in 2009. Something tells me that Nikon needs to be more aggressive than that, though (would that be large Sony, Samsung, Pentax, and Olympus bells going off in my head?). Sony is about to fundamentally change the consumer DSLR world with an even lower-priced 10mp camera than Nikon, leaving Nikon two choices: replace the D70 with a 10mp model, or lower the price rapidly on the D200. I'd guess the former rather than the latter. Thus:

D80 (August 2006) (August 9th, to be exact ;~)

  • 10mp DX at 3 fps Yep
  • CAM1000 Yep
  • Otherwise similar specs to D70s Yep
  • New 18-70mm VR, 70-300mm VR lens Very close: 18-135mm but no VR on the first lens

D60 (replaces D50 at PMA 2007 if it isn't introduced in August with the D80) I'm now going to say D40 instead of D60. [And I was right. Again, the prediction turned out to be within a few months of the target.]

  • 10mp DX at 2 fps Basically yep (for the D40x)
  • CAM1000 Nope
  • Otherwise similar specs to D50 Yep
  • New 18-55mm VR, 55-200mm VR lens Yep

Is that enough to keep Nikon's market share? Yes, I think it is, as long as the pricing stays right and nothing else gets lost in the changeover. Some may say that there's not much innovation there, but I'm not sure that innovation is what sells a true consumer DSLR; convenience and longevity are the key selling points for a low-end DSLR, and certainly for a Nikon DSLR. About the only functional innovation that's come at the low end is in-camera Anti-Shake (and perhaps Dust Removal), but both of those need a lot of marketing to get the message across as being worth changing brands for. VR kit lenses would hold off the former while simple filter design changes would minimize the latter. I'm also not fond of a mechanical point of failure (Anti-Shake) at the most costly to repair area of the camera, and VR in the lens helps low-light AF performance: sometimes simple is better.

Now, if it were me, again I'd do something a little different. The D80 idea is basically sound and needs to show up at Photokina this year, but pushing the D50 up to the D60 seems less so to me. I'd go the other way, aiming for the lowest possible price for a DSLR:

D30

  • 8mp DX at 2 fps
  • CAM1000 simplified (7 area only)
  • Smaller, lighter than the D50
  • New 19-135mm VR lens (that's a 28-200mm equivalent, which is how I'd label it) Doh! Nikon did that already (18-135mm introduced with D80)
  • No built-in flash (!); instead, built in infrared flash trigger and an optional SB-R200 like module.
  • Simple, simple, simple, with an attention to removing costs.
  • No top LCD, only back LCD. Simple, simple, simple.

The point of the design is to try to get close to the digicam all-in-one size and convenience with DSLR quality. Not quite pocketable, but hang-around-the-neck-all-day friendly.


Okay, let's be clear. I have no inside knowledge of what Nikon is up to. What you've read above is pure speculation based upon observable data points and a little bit (emphasis on little) of logic. It's a little spooky just how close my D40 and D80 predictions were months before any info leaked on them. I really did make it as I described, from the timing and feature set migration of previous models. This would tend to predict that the other speculations I made are in the neighborhood, too, at least in terms of timing.

Do not base your purchasing decisions on the above. Do not base your brand loyalty on the above. Do not sell your current equipment based upon the above (either because you're disappointed or because you're anticipating one of the projected models). Don't write to me when I'm proven wrong (but it's okay to write to me if I'm right ;~).

I do these mental thought games from time to time to be provocative. Consider yourself provoked. If you want to play along, via email send me your guess at the next three Nikon DSLR bodies to be announced. To be considered for inclusion here, you must supply:

  • Date new model will be announced (month and year are enough).
  • Name of new model.
  • What old model the new one replaces, if any.
  • New model megapixels and frame size (supplying a frame rate optional).
  • Any other defining characteristics you think important.

I'll try to figure out a way to present your guesses on this page (if there's commonality, I might be able to group them; if not, I may have to simply display the more provocative guesses). I will not identify the source of each guess other than first and last initials (and maybe not even that), so Nikon engineers are encouraged to play along ;~).

Thinking caps on?...Ready...Set...Predict!

 

 

As you might guess, I've gotten a lot of comments on this article since it first appeared on 6/4. I'll try to summarize them in this column.

First, the majority of you feel that the D3h will appear at Photokina (and that it will be 10mp [range of guesses: 10-12mp]). Like me, few could identify anything significant other than a megapixel and frame rate boost. Hi-Speed Crop, LBCAST, and built-in wireless got a lot of mentions. A built-in SU-800 also was mentioned (good idea).

Most of you also feel a D80 will be introduced this fall, though not all of those responders think that it will come at Photokina. One notable dissenter: a camera shop owner who claims that multiple NikonUSA reps have told him "no D50/D70s replacements in 2006." More than a few of you claim PMA 2007 is the target date for the D80. The most common definition was again similar to mine: 10mp sensor in D70s body.

The D3x didn't get as much mention as the D3h or D80, but I think that's mostly because people don't think it's very near, and few of us really need it. 24mp and FF seem to be the primary things that distinguish it in your minds (range of guesses: 18-24mp). Otherwise, it's just a D3h ;~)

Curiously, any D50 replacement mentioned was remarkably mild and not in 2006 (you typically think it will be still only 6mp, amazingly).

What surprised me most was how many thought the D30 (yes, I know that name was used by Canon) idea was not only interesting, but would happen sooner rather than later. Indeed, more people wrote to me about it than the D80! The primary (and really only) bone of contention with my design concerned the flash. Most responders thought that a low end camera HAD to have a flash. I'll remind folks that this is an example of "in-the-box" thinking. In-the-box thinking is what makes all those P&S cameras look and operate the same. Remember, Nikon is an engineering company, not a me-too company. One writer even suggested no viewfinder (only live view), but interchangeable lens (a DMLL, not a DSLR), and called it the Coolpix One ("the only one you'll ever need"). With risk can come rewards.

The FM3D I've referred to previously (but not in this article) surprisingly got almost as many mentions as the D3h and D80. A typical comment about it looked like this: "I dream about the FM3D almost every night. I wish it was real; I'd buy it sight unseen." One suggested that it should have a set of four user-replaceable low pass filters (standard, IR, astro, UV). Nikon, are you listening? Nikon! Get out of that box right now! Bad Nikon. Sit. Stay. Design!

One lone person thought Nikon would have no new DSLRs this year (let's hope they are wrong!).

     

 


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