Aptina Imaging Sold

(news & commentary)

ON Semiconductor has begun the process of acquiring Aptina Imaging for a reported US$400 million. Aptina itself was a spin-out from Micron Technology, mostly known for its memory production. 

The Nikon 1 cameras use Aptina sensors, and there’s long been rumor of a DSLR and other cameras coming with an Aptina sensor. ON Semi, on the other hand, is a much larger company than Aptina but specializes in automotive and industrial applications, not photography usage. Indeed, the ON Semiconductor press release says “…enables us to accelerate our growth in the attractive automotive and industrial end-markets by leveraging Aptina’s highly differentiated imaging technologies.” 

Wuh Oh. 

It seems that technologies that Nikon has counted on for products are escaping to play in other pastures. First Google getting the U-point technology, now ON Semi scooping up Aptina’s imaging technologies. 

Nikon’s “don’t fab it ourself” and “don’t write it ourselves” type of strategies are about to come to a boil, I think. The whole notion behind this approach was to “pick the best technology.” The problem is that those technologies aren’t controlled by Nikon. When a bigger fish comes along dangling money to acquire those technologies, it appears that Nikon isn’t prepared to get in a bidding war. Meanwhile, Nikon is under more pressure than ever to produce products that stand out. The danger is that they won’t. 

Nikon could of course opt for Sony 1” sensors. But Sony is becoming more dangerous than ever to Nikon. While Sony hasn’t found a knife sharp enough to make a flesh wound yet, they certainly are poking around, especially with the A7/A7r targeting the D610/D800 user. 

The problem I’m having these days that I didn’t have 30 years ago is this: exactly what technology does Nikon do uniquely that no one else can match? Or maybe only that Canon can match? There used to be a whole pile of those, but more and more it seems to me that the pile is getting smaller. 

That’s not to say that Nikon doesn’t have some clear technology wins. Their matrix metering is still unmatched. Their autofocus and VR systems are still state-of-the-art and well proven, though we’re getting new ways of doing those functions that are nibbling at the corners. Nano coating looked like a nice technology, but others are doing it now. Flourine coating is only going on lenses that most folk can’t afford at the moment, so that’s not exactly mainstream (and will be copied like Nano coating if it really solves a tangible problem).

Of course, this is usually the point where marketing steps in and comes up with names of things that sound impressive but are really just new words, not new technology. That keeps the sales up for awhile. 

Nikon needs another big technology win that’s all their own. One that patents will hold off the competitors for a bit. One that Nikon owns outright, not rents from someone else. I’m sure hoping that’s unseen somewhere behind Nikon’s doors at the moment, just waiting for the right moment to show up. 

I’ve been critical of Nikon management for awhile now. It really feels like they’re fumbling the ball. I’d love to be proved wrong. But all I’m seeing is a curtain when people are saying there’s a wizard. Please wizard, if you’re there, please step forward and show us something magical.

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