The Coming Photographic Slowdown

(commentary)

Wait, haven’t I been reporting that digital camera sales peaked several years ago and have been falling ever since, and for some types of cameras, dropping very rapidly?

Yes, I have. But it’s not just traditional cameras that are about to hit the ceiling. Smartphones will probably be hitting the ceiling of their market penetration during this year, and GoPro’s recent announcement of a poor Christmas sell-thru is a pretty good indication that the action camera market is already saturated (good luck entering that market late, Nikon ;~). 

To be blunt, we’re about to see virtually everything that claims it is a camera for photographic purposes hit household penetration ceilings that force every hardware company to look primarily to replacement and updating for future sales. That’s one reason why Apple introduced a “new phone every year” lease plan recently: the more people they can move to that, the more folk who will be updating every year, removing some of the burden to find new potential purchasers. 

My prognosis doesn’t apply to things like cameras on cars and security cameras where we’re still seeing (a) multiple cameras being added to a single auto, home, or office; and (b) we’re still seeing new customers coming into the market. But eventually, those, too will hit penetration limits, too. It’s inevitable. That’s what happens with tech. Customers can drink only so much water before being full.

Thing is, the automobile industry managed to make regular “updating” something that everyone believed they needed to do. In times of transition when clear new technologies, features, or performance are being deployed, or when population increases, the automakers can even manage to clearly improve sales on a year-over-year basis. In times of financial crisis—as the car companies learned in 2007/2008—people aren’t so interested in spending the big bucks on updating their vehicle, though. The one they had was good enough. 

Regular updating isn’t quite the norm in the personal high tech world. We get something more like irregular updating, where customers need to see some significant benefit to open their wallets again. This is the world that cameras of all sort are now living in, just as personal computers ended up in this space after transitioning from attracting new users to really only having established users to sell upgrades to. 

This is not to say that there aren’t any new users. Obviously, people have babies and babies grow up into miniature adults and then adults, and at some point they need a phone, a car, maybe an action camera or DSLR/mirrorless camera. But those newcomers tend to be replacement for the older folk dying off in the developed countries who might have been regular updaters, so the upside for new user sales can be low. 

So what’s that mean for us camera users (DSLR, mirrorless, action, or smartphone)? 

  • Replacement units have to have clear and meaningful benefits to get us to upgrade
  • Camera makers need to get better at describing those benefits
  • Pricing will stay under pressure

A lot of folk think that quality of images will be a key determinant for cameras in the future. In other words, the upgrade nets you better quality in your imaging. I think that ship has sailed. For the output that you’re likely to use any camera for today, we’ve got plenty of image quality already. For smartphones and action cameras, the limiting factor is absolutely displays. Who needs 8K video or 24mp stills if the output is a 1080P or 4K device or television? 

Many years ago, those of us in Silicon Valley used to talk about Alan Kay’s mythical “Dynabook.” When Kay was at Xerox PARC prior to the personal computer taking off, he envisioned a portable device about the size of a pad of paper that was as capable (or more) as any computers of his day. In 1972 he outlined how it would be used, what it could do, and the dimensions it had to hit to be ubiquitous. Virtually all of us at hardware companies in the Silicon Valley had something cooking in deep R&D that tried to create that device. Why? Because we knew a Dynabook type device was what was needed to free computers from being chained to a desk, and that unchaining a computer from a desk would enable all kinds of wonderful. 

Today, of course, we have a number of things that resemble the Dynabook in some way. And indeed, unchaining computers from desks has changed the way we work and play. More importantly to Kay’s vision, all those Dynabook imitators have opened up computing to children for both educational and play activity.

Well, what cameras need today is a new device. A device that’s been seen in plenty of SciFi books, TV shows, and films: wall panel displays. But just as the Dynabook was a future dream, so too are wall panel displays a future dream for most of us. Sure, my TV got bigger over the past decade, but it’s still only 4K, and it’s still not even close to the size of my wall. Pretty much every camera I use, when I display its output on my TV, does just fine in the image quality standpoint. Heck, the screen saver for my Apple TV puts iPhone images on that 4K display that look pretty stunning.

When we’re putting affordable 4x8’ panels up to completely fill a wall in a room, and those panels have enough pixel density so that we can get fairly close to them and not see the dot structure (e.g. so-called Retina displays), then and only then will the absolute need for higher quality cameras be necessary. 

To use another analogy, it was the confluence of Macintosh, PageMaker, and the Laserwriter that showed us that we needed faster, higher resolution computers, and which opened up new territory. (Technically, Xerox PARC did that first with the Alto, Postscript, and a laser printer, but that wasn’t really commercialized nor was it at a price where it was compelling to individuals and small businesses.) That’s what we need today: a confluence of camera, software, and output device that demands a higher level of quality, comes at affordable-to-individuals prices, and which will set off another round of camera buying by all. 

Until then, we’re in update city. Sometimes we'll get updates we like (e.g. D5, D500), sometimes we won’t (e.g. D610 ;~).

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