Product Envy

You're used to bragging about how good your camera is compared to another. You're used to fan boys fueling debate about which product is better (it's always theirs). You're used to on-line discussions about which camera you should buy and why. 

All these things have at their core "product envy." 

But there's a form of product envy that doesn't get talked about: that of the camera companies themselves. 

At the risk of exaggerating a bit:

  • Canon — Has no products other camera companies envy.
  • Fujifilm — The X100VI invokes intense envy from other camera makers.
  • Nikon — The Z8, Z9, and Zf all invoke clear envy right now from other camera makers.
  • OMDS — Has no products other camera companies envy, though there may be a few features that are envied.
  • Panasonic — Has no products other camera companies envy.
  • Sony — Has a series of "more hybrid" small cameras that other companies have some envy for (e.g. the A7C models).

One of the common discussions happening right now in Tokyo among the camera businesses has to do with the recent publication of both store and overall market results in Japan. While low cost (and often on deep sale) crop sensor cameras dominated the broader BCN retail channels in terms of volume, at the five "major" camera stores in Japan, Nikon's Z8 and Zf kept turning up at the top of the 2023 lists. They're currently number one and two at Yodabashi in March, three four and five (kit) at Fujiya, plus the Zf shows up as two or three at two others. 

Canon's asking themselves how a modest retro dial camera just powered past their R6 Mark II. Sony's trying to figure out why the A1 isn't holding its own. 

If you think that the camera companies don't respond each others' successful products, then you need to think again. In particular, Canon at the moment seems lost and peering fondly at their competitors' offerings. Canon is still executing mostly the same strategy as before forever but with a new mount and less third party support. When I talk to managers at retail stores in the US, they all say the same thing to me: Canon thinks they created the right products but the market doesn't think so. 

Meanwhile, Sony found that their A7/A7R mainstream duo has been stalling, while the A1 and A9 are not picking off as many pro Canon and Nikon photographers as they expected. Sony also got a little too on board with the "creator" thing, though they have been somewhat successful at attracting some competitor envy with the vlogging-type cameras (A7C, ZV-1/10). I wonder just how much market there is longterm for that "more hybrid" body style, though.

Nikon's grabbing RED out of nowhere for next to nothing is producing even more product envy at Canon/Panasonic/Sony, as well as a little bit of panic. A Nikon that emphasizes high end across both still and video yet undercuts the others in price while pushing the envelope on performance is very, very scary. To explain why, I have to use the smartphone market as an example: Apple is not the largest volume producer with iPhone worldwide, yet Apple scoops up far more of the profits in the smartphone arena than the others combined. High end done right is the Golden Egg in tech, and Nikon suddenly seems to be figuring that out (again). 

The reason why I mention this is that what I'm hearing out of Tokyo during the year-end business press conferences (and off-record whispers) is that at least three of the companies are looking at a few of the others with deep product envy, to the point that we're going to soon start seeing "hey let me play in that arena, too" type products. 

Expect more pro compacts, more hybrid crossovers, and more everything-including-the-kitchen-sink high end products in the next year to eighteen months. 

I'll help Tokyo out here:

  • Canon — needs to move away from market share to product dominance. Kiss/Rebel/low EOS is too vulnerable to, well, everything. Canon's starting to feel like the late 20th century General Motors of cameras. And in lenses, too, for that matter. The product line up seems "reasonable" at first glance, but it's geared towards a world where 10m+ cameras are sold a year, and that world no longer exists. 
  • Fujifilm — doesn't need a medium format compact camera, but they'll make it anyway ;~). My problems—and they should be yours, too, if they're your maker of choice—is a lot of inconsistency in UI/UX, an underperformance in autofocus, and a dated 20th century outlook on lens needs. 
  • Nikon — needs to figure out how far downwards they'll take their top-end tech, and get there faster. APS-C (DX) is technically dicey for them, even with the limited success of the Zfc. Plus RED now needs the Z-mount stat, not "sometime in the future." Nikon's got a lot on their plate that needs clearing.
  • OMDS — I'm finding them irrelevant these days. Full frame cameras with telephoto lenses have gotten smaller and lighter and are stealing wind from the one boat OMDS has in the water. An m4/3 XA was needed a decade ago, and still appears to be off the drawing board. The Pen F design has been abandoned in an era where it would probably be welcomed. And using large full frame lenses from a third party maker to fill a gap isn't going to cut it, is it?
  • Panasonic — doesn't need a full frame compact camera, but they'll make it anyway ;~). The problem at Panasonic is simple: they never standardized on anything, as did Sony with their laser E-mount focus. I see a lot of different engineering silos at Panasonic, all of which have some competence, but they often compete with themselves in ways that aren't productive. The sum of the parts in R&D at Panasonic are less than the sum of the parts in R&D at Panasonic. Someone needs to fix that.
  • Sony — I've been trying to figure out how many ILC models Sony is actually currently making. I come up with at least 16 models, and many more if I have to count things like the A7 Mark II that's still being sold. In a 6m unit/year camera world, that seems to me like asking for inefficiency, probably because you're too focused on market share (see Canon). Sony is the driver who darts from lane to lane thinking they're making progress, only to end up next to you at the next stop light. 

Product envy isn't going to get any camera maker very far, very fast. Worse still, I can still think of dozens of ways in which cameras could be improved that aren't being done right now. If I were running a camera company, I'd be singing the following:

When a problem comes along, you must whip it
When the cream sets out too long, you must whip it
When something's going wrong, you must whip it

Now whip it into shape
shape it up
get straight
go forward
move ahead
try to detect it
it's not too late
to whip it, whip it good

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