In DearSusan #1032, Pascal provided a thought-provoking opinion piece on the future of photography (flavored with some wonderful images in DS’s fine tradition). In this opinion article, I’d like to provide a few observations about the nature of innovation in general and draw on my own professional experiences in data communications networks specifically for parallels that may provide insight to the future of digital photography.
Innovation. Clayton Christensen’s seminal work from 1997, The Innovator’s Dilemma, convincingly showed that across a wide range of industries (as diverse as steam shovels and data-center class disk drives), the technology leader in generation “n” is never the leader in generation “n+1.” Instead, the gen n leader tends to continually add features, complexity and cost to their product, in the hope of protecting its position, and exhibits extreme reluctance to invest in, let alone move to, gen n+1 out of fear for its gen n cash cow. Those trailing the gen n leader are much more willing to move ahead to the next generation, generally delivering improved price / performance frequently with a “good enough” feature set.
We can argue whether DSLRs and mirrorless ILCs represent two distinct generations of digital photography or whether mirrorless ILCs are simply a generation extension (much as the automatic transmission was to automobiles). I don’t think it matters. Just observe that Sony, the outsider in DSLRs, felt free to move into mirrorless while co-leaders in DSLRs, Canon and Nikon, sought to preserve cash cows to the peril of their leadership positions.
Proprietary Systems vs. Open Standards. The massive growth of the internet in the 1990s into the 2000s was fueled by the adoption of common, open technology standards.
While now ancient history, prior to the internet the data communications networks one built were determined by the computer vendor who supplied one’s data processing systems. IBM, DEC, Honeywell, Burroughs, . . ., all had proprietary network architectures and protocols, effectively locking-in the customer while limiting the pace of innovation to that the vendor could or would deliver. Interworking was best accomplished by “sneaker-net.” Spin a tape of the data and walk the tape to the other computer system. Each computer maker played the same game; see where that got them.
From its infancy, the internet has been defined by open standards. With them barriers to entry dropped, allowing ecosystems of vendors to develop and deliver products that tended to be complementary, expanding capabilities and expanding demand. Indeed, leading vendors in the industry actively encouraged the development of ecosystem partners who could bring complementary product to the market, enlarging the market for all to flourish in. Many won as the pie grew.
Sony has licensed its lens mount and lens interface to several lens makers. While not the same thing as open standards, their licensing activity enabled them to grow their ILC market share rapidly with lenses from licensees filling in what originally were large gaps in its own lens product line. Clearly there has been a win-win for Sony and for its licensees.
The best example of open standards in digital photography is the Micro 4:3 initiative by Panasonic and Olympus. While Olympus is now exiting stage right and Panasonic is ogling full frame, I believe this is not a failure of open standards but rather an attempt to gain more space from the growing capabilities of smartphone cameras. Too, neither Panasonic nor Olympus were market leaders when they created M4:3 and thus may not have represented a large enough market segment to attract much of an ecosystem.
Pascal describes the world of high-fidelity audio with its myriad players, many frankly boutique vendors. Yet the list of vendors is quite lengthy and stable. High fidelity has long benefited from the use of de facto open interface standards. While not as technically demanding nor complex as those for computer networking, it is those common standards that allow the audiophile to mix and match from a range of vendors. Indeed, it is possible to assemble a system with turntable, CD deck, analog preamp, digital to analog converter, power amplifier and speakers all supplied by different vendors.
Ease of Use. A second major enabler of the growth of the internet was the development of the worldwide web and its associated browser by researchers at the University of Illinois, subsequently productized by Netscape. Suddenly, one did not have to be a computer geek to access remote resources.
As Thom Hogan correctly preaches, take a photo with your smartphone and it can be posted to your social media account while you compose the next photo. Take a photo with your DSLR or mirrorless camera and do not hold your breath while getting that image off the camera, developed and posted. Neither Sony, Canon nor Nikon have been interested in solving this problem. Open up the interface with standards, let an ecosystem develop, and watch the sale of camera gear start to grow.
Where We Find Ourselves. The market for interchangeable lens cameras continues to decline year after year. Each of the major players seem to be following the same general strategy: move to full-frame or larger sensors where it appears larger margins or larger unit profits can be had. All hope the larger sensor will create distance from the dread smartphone camera while increasing unit revenue as unit volume declines. Entry prices for the consumer to full frame cameras is around 1500 USD/EUR for a body and north of 2000 USD/EUR with a kit lens included. Double or triple these entry point prices for medium format. Each new incremental iteration is seemingly met with the yawns it deserves. Annual unit sales continue to shrink. Staying stuck at our current point would seem to guarantee the market will never again be large enough to sustain itself.
Motivating the Next Gen of Digital Photography. What will motivate development and adoption of the next gen of digital photography?
More pixels and more dynamic range? For most applications, a 24 MPix full-frame sensor with 14-stops of dynamic range is more than sufficient. Yes, there are some genres and some use cases where a 45 MPix (+/-) sensor is helpful and we already have those cameras. Scale these numbers linearly with increase in sensor area for medium format. Any more pixels and we do an impressive job of capturing lens diffraction. More dynamic range takes us further beyond the limits of our displays and printers to convey that added range in a natural looking way.
Solve the ease of use problem? Maybe. It certainly could expand the addressable market to include folks who want to move beyond the smartphone camera but don’t want to get wrapped up in the headache of moving the image from camera to social media.
Lower prices? Nikon’s volume leaders have always been in the D3xxx and D5xxx series (and their predecessors) of DSLRs, cameras that have sold for well under 1,000 USD/EUR and some models under 500 USD/EUR including kit lens. Ditto Canon. Today, vendors are trying to sustain and grow a market with entry product priced at 1500 – 2000 USD/EUR and up, sharply contracting the addressable market size. Lower prices that could grow volume, increase revenue to sustain an industry can, in the long run, only come through lower costs (which, in turn, are usually further aided be higher volumes).
Open Standards to Enable the Next Gen of Digital Photography.
With sensor technology mature, why not define open interface standards and let the sensor itself become a commodity, priced as such, enabling an expanded addressable market? The multi-billion USD/EUR capital cost of a semiconductor fabrication line is no longer a barrier. There are multiple fabs out there looking for companies with chip designs needing a fabricator. Even Intel is in the business of fabricating third party chips. The added volume helps to defray the enormous cost of building a modern fab and can extend the useful life of a prior gen fab for less demanding chips.
Ditto open standards for lens-mounts and lens-interfaces. Let an ecosystem develop that expands the growth rate of the market, much as Sony did by licensing its lens interface standards. Also, having multiple vendors using compatible lenses helps insure one’s expenses for a new lens set against withdrawal of any one vendor from the market.
Why not expand the market by reducing cost through product simplification? I am a still-image photographer. I do not need a camera that does 4k or 8k video at 60 or 120 frames per second. I’m not a spray and pray photographer; I don’t need a buffer of many dozens of images. A much simpler, lower-cost, data-bus and processing structure in the camera would do the job for me just as well while still providing me the same 24 or 45 MPix, high dynamic range images I want.
Where then might Sony, Canon, Nikon and any other existing players add value and make money? It takes more than a sensor and lens mount to make a camera. These companies are good to excellent at color science, at image development, at on-camera post-processing, at focusing and tracking focus and the integration of all of these. If the current camera purveyors could begin to think of themselves as software companies rather than hardware manufacturers, they might realize that capabilities that grow over-time can be monetized directly through sale of firmware rather than through sales of yet more camera bodies. Today, that growing feature set is frequently given away.
The vendors have generally been cutting their service organizations as part of their cost reduction efforts, some more notably than others. Yet demanding professional and advanced amateur photographers need readily accessible support after the sale and through a product’s useful life. I suspect there is a willingness to pay for service that earns that name.
Solve the ease of use problem. If Sony/Nikon/Canon don’t want to do this themselves, then partner with others who can add their own value while helping to expand the addressable market.
Olympus and Panasonic with M4:3 aside, none of the major players have shown a willingness to open interfaces fully and pursue growing an ecosystem of providers who just might provide complementary capabilities, enhancing everyone’s products and growing the market. Instead, it has been largely a “go it alone” strategy, leaving any third-party providers to the task of reverse engineering. All while hoping to maintain price premiums of larger format cameras to hold as much revenue as possible.
Time will tell if any of the current players are willing or able to transform themselves or if we see a new entrant willing and able to disrupt the status quo and pursue an open systems strategy.
The Images. In the best tradition of DearSusan, I have flavored this opinion piece with images from Fort Ross and its environs on the isolated coast of Sonoma County, California, about 80 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. In 1812, California was under Spanish control while Alaska was still a province of Russia. The Russian-American Company, responsible for Russia’s interests in Alaska, sent a party south to settle in California with the aim of supplying food to the Alaskan settlements. While the Russian-American Company’s presence in California lasted only until 1841, its influence on coastal Sonoma County is still seen today, especially through the preservation and re-creation of the settlement in Fort Ross State Historic Park. Too, Fort Ross in a sense was the high-water mark of Czarist Russia’s eastern expansion. In 1867, Russia sold its interests in Alaska to the United States in 1867 (for $7.2 million). Alaska became the 49th state in 1959.
The Sea Ranch, California
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