The Nikon Buys Samsung Rumor

(commentary)

While I was bobbing in the ocean for two weeks, a rumor was bobbing through the web fora: that the reason why Samsung appears to be withdrawing from cameras is that Nikon bought their camera division. Unfortunately, this rumor doesn’t seem to sink and disappear—fortunately neither did I—it continues to bob on the surface like a bit of flotsam that nobody knows where it came from or what to do with.

Let’s examine this rumor from a pragmatic point of view: exactly what would have Nikon gained by buying Samsung’s camera assets? Specifically, the list would consist of:

  • A new open-source camera OS based on Tizen
  • Potential licensing of BSI sensor technologies
  • About two dozen crop sensor lens designs, plus a few 1” lens designs
  • A couple of current mirrorless body designs
  • A different phase detect-on-sensor focus system
  • 4K video H.265 compression and handling routines
  • EVF viewfinder technology that uses phase lock for fast refresh
  • Better iOS and Android app bases, including excellent NFC and Bluetooth stacks

I’ve seen others include such things as manufacturing plants, personnel, and full ownership of state-of-the-art sensor production, but I think those are all fantasies. Nikon doesn’t need more manufacturing in this down market, it already is over staffed, and Samsung isn’t going to give away sensor tech, they’ll only license it. 

Indeed, there were believable rumors that Samsung was shopping the full camera group earlier this year, particularly to some ventures in China, but that nobody wanted the inventory, buildings, and staff, plus Samsung wasn’t willing to actually sell any of their sensor technologies outright. 

So go back and look at the list I gave: what in that list would Nikon actually want? Only the first two. The rest just duplicate things Nikon already has, either internally or via existing partnerships. Thus, this Nikon-buys-Samsung rumor makes little to no sense to me, as there’s little of actual value to Nikon in such a transaction. The only two things I can think of that Nikon might be interested in with Samsung are: (a) a new sensor production partner; and (b) some help by licensing some software pieces that Nikon is struggling with (e.g. apps). 

That said, the camera industry is at the point where one would expect consolidation. Lots of it. The problem is that Japan is different than the US or Europe when it comes to merging and downsizing companies: the laws in Japan make it tough to acquire another company and then shed duplicate employees, for instance. On top of that, old keiretsu relationships still perpetuate in the banking and stock ownership attributes of these companies, and it’s difficult to merge anything without full approval of those groups. Worse still, the three companies that would most likely be making any consolidation buys (Canon, Nikon, and Sony) don’t really need anything that the players they’d buy could provide, with one exception: lenses. Thus, companies like Cosina and Sigma are really the most likely targets (Sony already has a strong investment in Tamron). 

I think we’re mostly stuck with the Japanese camera industry we’ve got for the time being. At some point, we’re going to see some absolute failures as cash flow issues catch up with one or two of the smaller players if the declining market doesn’t reverse itself. That’s the point where the banks will step in and organize an arranged marriage in order to protect their investments as best as possible. 

But Nikon buying Samsung’s camera division? Doesn’t seem at all likely. 

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