Is the Nikon Flagship Model Broken?


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Since the F3 (and maybe even the F2 with a few caveats), Nikon’s modus operandi has been to iterate the high end pro camera on a fixed schedule and then trickle down the new technology it introduced to the lower models. In the film world, those flagship iterations came on 8 year boundaries; in digital the timeframe has been 4 years. In both cases, the goal was to have a new technologically-evolved top end camera available sometime in the year before the Summer Olympics.

We’re mid-point on the D4 to D5 expected transition. But my question is whether this development model is now hurting Nikon more than it is helping them. 

Personally, I’m not a fan of fixed development schedules. One of three things happens: (1) you start cutting feature/performance items to meet the fixed date of the schedule, or (2) you launch the product with more problems in it than you want, or (3) you miss the date entirely. I’ve worked on fixed schedules many times in my career, the last of which was trying to get QuickCam designed and launched in six months in order to have it available for sale at a Macworld show where it was to be announced. It can be done, obviously, but it’s not without problems. Doing it repeatedly means you will encounter problems.

The quake and floods of 2011 caught Nikon near the end of their expected cycle in a way that delayed the flagship (D4) and may have caused other delays, as well (D300s replacement, D800, and maybe even the somewhat late D7100). Other than the consumer cameras, the cycles all pushed back at least a year, and because consumer cameras generally inherit from the high end, there’s less truly interesting new stuff for them to inherit.

The problem Nikon now has is the declining camera market that’s spinning faster than their flagship cycles (market down 49% in four years!). Just in the D3 to D4 cycle—four years—we’ve also had a serious downsizing of one of the key purchasers of the high-end camera: photojournalism camera pools are much smaller now and may get smaller still before the D5 hits. Two weeks ago while shooting big sports events, I saw multiple pros on deadline pull out their smartphone to take certain types of photos instead of using the big heavy box and lens hanging from their neck. I was also surprised by how many working pros were not using the big body models (e.g. 5DIII or D700 instead of a 1Dx or D4s). 

That smartphone bit is part of the problem I described to Nikon executives almost five years ago: the camera companies aren’t nearly state-of-the-art with their most important and dedicated users’ workflow. I want to shoot and transmit when I’m on deadline. You can do that with your smartphone, but it’s a real pain in the butt to do with a flagship DSLR. Indeed, if I were shooting sports for a living I’m not sure I wouldn’t give up the top-of-the-line focus and frame rate for convenience. Stick an EyeFi card in my D7100 and suddenly I can transmit from my nearby computer immediately without touching it, whereas with my D4 I need to either connect via an Ethernet cable or have the fussy WT-5 connected and use a more complicated work flow. 

In other words, the user problem isn’t being solved very directly or conveniently. I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating here: I’ve seen ordinarily people getting images up to their Facebook account faster and more conveniently than the working pro. That makes the working pro’s problems even more pronounced when he or she can’t beat regular social media to an image. 

But back to my point: I don’t want to wait until 2015 (or 2016 if the schedule is now pushed back from the D4 delay) for the answers to my problems. At the current rate of decline, the camera market may be perhaps half what it was when the D4 came out by the time a D5 is introduced. Note that Nikon already halved their development timeline from film to digital, but it’s still too slow: changes are coming fast and furious in the media these days, and smartphones, which are updating every year, are driving part of that. I can’t wait a couple of years to see what Nikon’s solutions to my problems are: if I’m trying to make money from photography, I have to come up with solutions today. 

I know a couple of pros who’ve put together Rube Goldbergish types of gear that will handle the workflow for them, mostly automatically once they use the camera to crop (or have someone they trust at the other end to do so ;~). But really folks, here we are 15 years into the DSLR era and Sports Illustrated is still using runners to get images from photographers to a temporary server that HQ can see at big events?  

Meanwhile, the consumer and prosumer are the more lucrative markets for the camera companies now, and they also won’t wait for solutions. I’ve described the leakage problem that Nikon caused by not updating the D300 and D700, two of their most profitable and successful products of recent times, and keys to the prosumer market in particular. The longer that loyal brand aficionados don’t get what they want in terms of updated gear, the more likely they just jump ship. With the lack of D300 update the leaks are also coupled to the lack of key DX lenses, too. Why settle for a D7100 if you can’t get the lenses you want, but you can for a Fujifilm X-T1, Olympus E-M1, or Panasonic GH4?

Nikon can’t wait for an Olympic cycle to fix things. They needed an emergency engineering team formed stat several years ago, and now stat has become critical stat, or statim discrimine to go all Latin on them. 

Nikon needs to change in a lot of ways—get better at customer relationships, get more efficient and consistent globally, get better at marketing, etc.—but without a new round of customer-focused products soon that shows they aren’t just doing the same old iteration on the same old cycles, none of the other things matter all that much.   

I’m proclaiming the flagship development model broken. 


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