Thursday, March 24, 2016

Innovate or Die!

Ming has another one of his remarkably uninsightful "state of the industry" analyses up, in which he repeats the conventional wisdom that the only that will save Nikon and Canon is if they "innovate more" along with a bunch of other stuff that he may or may not have simply gleaned off of other pundit's blogs. He might as well have, because there's nothing that hasn't been said by the usual suspects, and his synthesis is either missing or ridiculous.

Thom Hogan repeats the same "innovate or die" routine constantly. Michael Reichmann has been known to repeat this now and then, although he apparently is too busy counting his money to write much any more. And then the cry is taken up by the smaller fry, and it is simply obvious as the nose on your face to everyone except the people who are actually in a position to know. The marketing guys at Canon and Nikon actually do this as a full time job and have access to a lot of proprietary information, and have the knowledge, the budget, and the motivation to actually do research rather than just guessing based on what the boneheads at the last PhotoWalkMeetupThing said over beers.

The hardwired telephone has essentially not changed in a while. The last substantive innovation here was DTMF ("touch tone") dialing, which came about starting in 1963, more than 50 years ago. The shape of the box changes, but the device itself works in exactly the same way as it always has. People have, in the last decade or so, started wanting to use telephones in completely different ways, ways that make the hard-wired connection problematic. This has led to the gradual, but inevitable, replacement of the wired phone with various wireless solutions. Note that the wired telephone is being replaced not by a fancier wired telephone with stereo headphones, but by not one but several different products, none of which are anything like a wired telephone.

The gun hasn't changed one goddamned bit in more than 100 years. I don't think anyone has made a serious effort to replace this thing in ages. The "innovations" are designs of the same damn thing reworked so that a blacksmith can make the things out of truck parts with a file. There's a reason the TV show Serenity depicted people in the far future shooting at one another with six-shooters. It's because in 500 years or 1000 years or 10,000 years there's an excellent chance they will be. The gun is the perfect instrument for violently poking holes in things (e.g. people) from a distance.

The point is that there are products which have simply arrived. They are fully optimized. They do a job as well as that job can be done.

Quite frankly, the DSLR is damn near there. The basic SLR body was tuned and tweaked and figured out over a period of many decades, with features introduced cautiously, carefully. Metering. Automatic exposure modes, Autofocus. And then the digital sensor. Each of these went through a bunch of iterations before arriving at a pretty solid solution. You could make an argument that EVF is a the next step to be carefully iterated until it's bang on, and then it becomes the standard and nobody really remembers when DSLR-type cameras didn't have EVFs.

The DSLR, from either Nikon or Canon, is the perfect embodiment of itself. Yes, you can fiddle with this or with that, but my father used to say that the reason a recipe calls for 1/2 a teaspoon of salt is because the author tested it with 1 teaspoon, and with 1/4 teaspoon, and the 1/2 was the right amount. Small changes to a well-tested recipe will invariably make it worse. Similarly, taking the DSLR and tweaking a couple of things with some "innovation" is far more likely to throw the whole balance of the thing off and make it simply worse, than it is to make a better product.

Yes, there will be a small and vocal group who insist that the NoseBall control was the innovation Canon needed to save themselves, but they will be wrong. They will appear to have numbers behind them, but those people are all sock puppets.

The way forward is almost certainly not to screw around with little fiddly bits, to "innovate" around the existing product set. An existing, mature, product like a DSLR is evolved, carefully and in small steps, otherwise you just wind up with a cake that has too much salt in it and tastes kind of gross.

Yes, the DSLR market is contracting as the soccer moms just use their phones. The glory days of the DSLR bubble are wrapping up, and we're reverting to something a lot more like the 1970s.

The wired phone is being replaced by SMS, cell phones, wireless phones, Skype, and a dozen other lesser players. It's probably going to vanish, living on only in the general shape and user experience of the Ethernet-connected telephone which is practically ubiquitous in business environments already. It's too bad, because the very best end-device ever invented for making phone calls was the wired analog telephone. Remember when phone calls just worked, every single time?

So quit looking for Canon or Nikon to "innovate" in the DSLR product line. They're smarter than that. Look at their other product lines.


  1. I would even go so far to say that the hurried pace of "innovation" is at least in part the reason for the trouble in which the camera manufacturers are. Since about five years or so (maybe even earlier), the cameras are sufficient for 99% of photographic use cases. Now, overproduction and short product lifecycles effect that great equipment from the last product generation(s) can be bought with substantial rebates (or even second hand) at any given time. In real life, the results one gets with this outdated equipment are often not discernible from those with current equipment.

    This is absolutely damaging for the perceived value of cameras! Who is going to buy a new wondercamera today if it can be bought next year for half the price, or if it is outdone in two years by a cheap bridge camera? I, for one, am not. Let others pay the depreciation.

  2. Andrew, I almost didn't make it past your new captcha! Did you try to lock out your dear friend Tavis?

    1. I actually had no idea there even WAS a captcha! I dug around in the settings and I think I turned it off.

      Tavis is welcome to comment! We thrive on dissent here!

  3. I'm going to stop writing so much. You say smarter stuff and you write it better! That will leave me more time to browse through your back files.

    1. That is very kind of you! But please keep writing! Lots more please!

  4. The most innovative camera maker of the 70s, 80s, and 90s was Minolta. They rule the world right now, right????

    On the other hand, I can find a lot of innovations on the examples you shown:

    Phones: Cordless, voip, answering machines, satelite phones, phones in cars, cell phones, smartphones...

    Guns: The most important change to come is railgun. This will change a lot of things in the future.

    DSLRs: If a photographer from the 70s was transported to today, they would have zero idea on how to operate a dslr. The DSLRs is destined to the same fate as the view camera, rangefinder cameras and medium format cameras. A niche. But that doesn't mean it will disappear. Probably sport photographers will use a DSLR and other specialized photographers will keep using it, same way there are still portrait photographers that use medium format (film and digital) and even view camera. SLR were the best we could get for film. But for sure, it is not the best we can get for digital.

    But as minolta shown us, the reason why a company dies (the photography part at least) is economical, and have more to do with marketing and sells than innovation. Of course mirrorless companies are using innovation as marketing, that is the point. The innovations are their marketing hook, same way apple does it, and they are doing a great job with that.

    1. All those "phones" are not hardwired landline phones, they are fundamentally different products, used in different ways, and built by different companies.

      The railgun is the gun of the future, and it always will be. You just cannot beat the combination of energy density and stability offered by gunpowder. Caseless ammunition might be a thing, eventually, as it offers similar energy density and is in many ways more convenient. There are issues here as well, however.

      As for your other remarks, I have no particular responses, but thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  5. A pedant writes: the TV show was "Firefly"; "Serenity" was the movie of the TV show. And, although I completely take your point about guns, the reason they use six-shooters is because the scenario is a thinly-disguised "Western with post-US Civil War issues"...

    One of those great TV series that tragically failed to make its numbers, and perished by the advertisers' Gatling gun...

    I am a huge fan of the Reavers. Comanches with space ships!