What’s the Plan?

A photographer I talk with regularly had the following comment recently: “I don’t see a coherent plan from any of the Japanese camera companies.” Like me, he’s not perfectly happy with any camera on the market and can find fault even with his D800. 

What does he mean by his statement? The companies seem to:

  • have no idea what would make you buy more product
  • have over-iterated on meaningless things, under-iterated on meaningful ones
  • get distracted by the local market tendencies (Japan)
  • don’t have strong connections to even their most loyal user base
  • keep introducing new lens mounts, as if that’s the user problem that needs fixing
  • have done nothing to advance workflow
  • are inefficient in the wrong ways in managing inventory
  • have gotten the Auto Industry disease of hooking customers on discounts
  • have made the products too complicated for new users
  • keep making the same mistakes
  • have exceedingly vague or opaque future plans

The “plan” we do keep hearing about from all the Japanese camera companies seems an awful lot like MBA School boilerplate, statements that wouldn’t even get a C out of B-school professors:

  • cost control
  • emphasize higher-end products 
  • targeted sales initiatives
  • sell more to China, maybe India and a few other places
  • wait for the economy to recover

Sorry, but that batch of BS doesn’t get a passing grade at all. And if those first four were the answers, why weren’t they already doing them and seeing results? Because those aren’t the answers, that’s why.

Don’t get me wrong. Cost control is something every business needs to constantly work at. Ditto sales initiative. But that’s sort of like eating and breathing for a business. Don’t do it and you die. Doing more of it (or rather: saying you’ll do more of it) won’t drive the car, let alone get it started and out of the garage. 

What’s really driving those statements by the camera companies is this chart:


Yellow is unit volume of compact cameras, green is lenses, blue is interchangeable lens cameras (mirrorless and DSLR) (source: CIPA). And that last estimated data point that causes the slight uptick for this year is highly optimistic, by the way. My estimates for the year show a continued slide more aggressively downward. But either way you look at it, digital cameras peaked in sales in 2010/2011 and interchangeable lens cameras and lenses peaked in 2012.

In particular the “emphasize higher-end products” statements come from charts like the one I just showed. Sure, any idiot can see that the lower end products (compacts) totally collapsed (and again, that last data point for CIPA’s estimates for 2014 seems optimistic). At least the “higher-end” camera market isn’t showing the same level of collapse. But wait, it is in significant decline at the moment, with no end in sight. Maybe go even higher end to keep sales numbers up? Elasticity of demand says no, but the Japanese executives say yes. 

Let’s try a little thought work for a moment. Let’s assume we’re camera company executives. Do we think that something will replace putting a lens in front of a sensor for cameras in the near future? Seriously. Is the game going to change so dramatically any time that we can foresee in the near future that we think that this fundamental thing will change about cameras? Remember, it did change back at the turn of the century, when putting a sensor instead of film in back of a lens became the norm. What I’m trying to do here is have you think about the potential for a fundamental physical disruption.

Here’s my answer: no. While I’m well aware of things that aren’t glass that we might put in front of a sensor someday, and while it’s clear that my organic eyeball works differently than my semiconductor image sensors, and while I see plenty of folk experimenting with multiple lenses and multiple sensors (think insect eye), for the next two, three, four, or more years I don’t think “camera” will be defined differently than “sensor behind lens.” 

So how do you stay alive for those years (and possibly more if nothing shows up to completely redefine camera in four years)? By slowing down your lens production as Nikon seems to be doing? By iterating seemingly every variation of sensor size and camera style as Sony is? By painfully slowly downsizing your consumer DSLRs like Canon is? By just jettisoning your compact group because you can’t figure out how to make one that sells as a couple of companies seem to be doing? By adding new colors and batteries to your lineup? 

Apple faced that same market-in-decline challenge with Macintosh more than once. Heck, supposedly today the personal computer business is dying just like the camera business is (it isn’t, but that’s a story for another day). Yet Apple is one of the few companies that seems to defy the market in PCs over time. Not a producer of huge growth for them (iPhones are where it’s at, with a helping of iPad). Still, it’s been a healthy, modestly growing business, despite all the predictions of downturns. So what did they do? 

Well, let me take the statements I made up front in this article and Apple-fy them for the camera companies:

* have no idea what would make you buy more product

Pretty simple answer: make sure you know what the product actually does, what the customer would use it for, and how. Take all that’s right in your product and make it “righter.” Yes, that’s iteration, but not feature-creep iteration, but rather function-targeted iteration. Let me ask this question: do you think that if we asked the eight major Japanese companies to all tell us what the basic, necessary functions photographers want/need in their cameras that they’d all agree? And would that actually match the answers of the average photographer? And has there really ever been any simplification of feature sets instead of adding to them? While Apple has gotten short-term complaints when they remove something (Firewire ports, for example), in the long-term we’ve adjusted because it probably was the right decision. A Thunderbolt port can be made to understand Firewire, USB, Ethernet, and more, so why the dedicated port proliferation?

Know what’s fundamental to the product and enhance that.

* have over-iterated on meaningless things, under-iterated on meaningful ones

This is related to the previous one. Meaningful is performance (image quality, focus speed and accuracy) and usability (controlling composition, exposure, white balance, focus, and timing, plus maybe some camera settings [though us raw shooters rarely change those, which brings up another problem with current designs]). Meaningless are crippled add-on features such as HDR JPEGs but no real ability to create HDR sequences. Or more Art Filters or Retouch Menu items that are fanciful rather than useful (fads die quick). 

Iterate the most useful things to the photographer, don’t iterate or add anything else unless it solves a real photographer problem.

* get distracted by the local market tendencies (Japan)

Yes, we know small cameras and mirrorless cameras sell well in Japan, the latter possibly mostly because they’re smaller. However there are many things about the Japanese culture that aren’t true elsewhere. For instance, the Japanese tend to follow directions as given: if the camera company says do this and that to accomplish this, then that’s what they do, even if it adds steps. Western cultures are more impatient: we don’t like additional steps, and we don’t sometimes follow directions. “Intuitive” in Japan often means something different than in the United States. Just as the Japanese car makers had to study and embrace the American customer in order to sell successfully to them, I think we’re at that point with high tech gear, too. And Europe is different than the US.  

Make sure you know your global users, not just your local customers. Localize globally.

* don’t have strong connections to even their most loyal user base

Here’s the question for Canon USA and Nikon USA: give me a profile of your best, most profitable customer. What have you done for them lately?  Well, I’m enjoying my 7DMkIII and D400, aren’t you? And those folk bought the 70-200mm f/2.8 (or maybe these days f/4), but what the heck do they do for a great mid-range zoom on a crop sensor? Yes, I’m enjoying my 16-50mm f/2.8 IS/VR, aren’t you? Look, it’s okay to chase new customers, but only if you can succeed in hanging on to the ones you have. Otherwise you’re just churning. In the magazine business we used to call this “retention.” Canon and Nikon in particular are guilty of assuming that because there aren’t any great alternatives available, that they’ll always retain their customer. They are wrong. Moreover, that photography customer might just decide that fishing is a more enjoyable hobby. 

Can you make your best existing customers happier? If so, do it.

* keep introducing new lens mounts, as if that’s the user problem that needs fixing

I understand that lens mounts might not last forever. But when you make a switch, it’s all or nothing, guys. Prove to us that the new is worth moving to. If you do, we don’t need the old any more. If you don’t, we don’t need the new. It really is that simple. Sony is the worst at this at the moment. They seem to have decided that Alpha, no wait NEX E, no wait the FE mount is their future. In less than a decade. Seriously? Show us you need all those variations or tell us what the real future is. (Hint: it’s FE with a set of crop choices, ala DX and FX and EF-S and EF.)

Legacy or new. Those are the only two choices, so pick one and do everything possible to make your choice stick.

* have done nothing to advance workflow

This is where it all comes to a head. Smartphones coupled with the Internet proved that photos can be taken, managed, edited, and distributed in new ways. Digital cameras? Not so much. Actually, not at all. Why the hell does Nikon think that with my DSLR I want to buy a WiFi accessory and then it can only talk to a crippled and basic iOS or Android app? Why can’t it talk to my TV through the WiFi connection? My computer? My network? My cloud system? Japanese companies tend to think of photo workflow as linear. It’s not. It’s highly interconnected these days. My computers understand that. My camera does not. When I look at all the ways that Apple has significantly changed customer workflow for the better, the camera companies look like giant glacial rocks that haven’t moved in millennia.  

Solve user problems, not add features. Users eventually get tired of features, but they never get tired of your solving their biggest problems.

* are inefficient in the wrong ways in managing inventory

Did you make it for all of us, or only some of us? Apparently Nikon thinks that they only make some of their goods for us, the rest shouldn’t ever be in the country, let alone be fixed or dealt with by Nikon in any way. Global company, my derriere. I first pointed this out on the Internet in 1996, by the way. Nothing’s changed or gotten better. And Nikon has suffered multiple instances of getting product balance in the US wrong. Can’t be solved by shipping it somewhere else, can’t be solved by moving gear in from somewhere else. Not. Global. At. All. But it goes far, far beyond that. Every dealer I talk to is balking at one thing at the moment: SKUs. Just for the CURRENT Nikon 1 lineup (AW1, S2, J4, V3), there must be 18 SKUs (multiple colors and multiple lens combos). There’s probably far more than that, but I’d need to look at the current dealer sheets to know for sure, and I haven’t seen the latest one yet. 18+ SKUs for cameras that aren’t selling all that well. Oh, wait, one of them isn’t selling well because it isn’t in stock. Another has been in limited stock. Still another was withheld from the market for awhile. See any problems with that nonsense? It all boils down to poor line management and poor inventory management. Then, once it piles up at a dealer because you forced it on them somehow, the problem multiplies instead of going away. 

Even Apple has glitches, and they design and distribute globally and monitor hourly. The glitches get bigger and more painful the less of that you do. 

* have gotten the Auto Industry disease of hooking customers on discounts

I have access to some interesting retail statistics here in the US. I’ll generalize here so as not to disclose information I shouldn’t: rebates work, list price mostly works only at introduction. This has created three classes of camera gear: hot (sells at list price in quantity at introduction, doesn’t get discounted much, if at all, for a long time); solid (sells at list price at introduction only, needs a rebate/bundle/discount to sell almost immediately thereafter; and dud (needs a discount to sell at all, and often ends up not selling until the “final discounts” start showing up, and even then it might need fire sale discounts to move. Bottom line, you think the list price is too much on most gear here in the US, and the US is one of the lower priced places you can buy a camera. 

Produce to demand. Create demand to grow. 

* have made the products too complicated for new users

Why does the D3300 need a Guide Mode? Why don’t other Nikon DSLRs have a Guide Mode?  Why is Guide Mode so complex and difficult? ;~) Here’s Thom’s Guide Mode: put 16 images on the LCD (flower, child, athlete, scenic, etc. for macro, portrait/action, sports, and landscape). Touch the one that most closely resembles the scene in front of you. The camera is now set much like a pro would for that situation (and not watered down to f/5.6 for “deep depth of field” and f/4 for “shallow depth of field”); at this point the user may use any of the basic usability controls I described above to alter settings. Nothing is locked out. Starting point plus flexibility. That’s it. Of course, 15 buttons and 3 dials (plus two switches on the lens in the case of the D3300 kit) may be a bit much, too. I’d need to address that. Note that I don’t want to take anything away from the D3300 in terms of quality, performance, or ability. Just redirect it to being understandable to my mom. She’d be a new customer ;~)

Can your mom understand the product? No? Then it isn’t a consumer-oriented product.

* keep making the same mistakes

Don’t get me started. One reason why my writing about these things might seem a bit grumpy at times is that the problems I write about were known in the 90’s. Yet they're still there in a camera today. Then there are the constantly changing batteries. I refuse to believe that we need a dozen different batteries for cameras. And I refuse to believe that extra batteries can’t be available when a new camera ships. As much as I first disliked Apple getting rid of replaceable batteries on their laptops, I have to admit that not having to deal with new batteries every generation is one joy. Plus we’ve got far better batteries now, too. Could I tolerate a DSLR with a built-in battery? Probably yes if it shot for as long as D800 on a battery and I could top it off in the field via portable USB batteries, ala the iOS devices. Certainly there has to be a better solution than a new battery every camera and limited availability at launch.

You have to look for mistakes from the customer perspective, not the manufacturing perspective.

* have exceedingly vague or opaque future plans

I’d like to know that when I put US$1000 or US$5000 or US$10000 or more into new gear from Company X that they have my back. Or at least intend to have my back. 

Again, returning customers are golden, so you must make them believe in the future of the product(s) you’re selling them.

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