Does Nikon Have a Future?

(While it might not seem like it at first, this article is a continuation of yesterday’s thoughts. You’ll see how I bring us back to the Middle Ground discussion soon enough.)

Short answer: sure. 

It’s very difficult to kill large companies, even when they make both tactical and strategic mistakes. That becomes doubly true when the brand has strong value, as does Nikon's. 

Since I like to use Apple as a comparison—I’ve studied them closely for almost 40 years now—I should point out that Apple made some really bonehead mistakes, lived in what was assumed to be a dying industry, and was declared dead more than once. The period just prior to Steve Jobs rejoining was full of quickly-iterated products that weren’t carefully distinguished, bad decisions about potential future bets (Apple had at least three OS development teams working on different “futures,” none of which turned out to be OS-X ;~), slowdown in sales of formerly key products, an industry slowdown, a go-it-alone attitude, eroding customer support, and more. Sound familiar? 

Apple’s slow climb back into relevance in personal computing took clarity of vision, a connection to customer needs, determination of a core group of individuals, and a lot of guts. If you dig yourself into too deep a hole, eventually you get to a “bet the company” type of situation. If you’re right, fine, you course corrected and now are back on track. If you’re wrong, the downward spiral tends to quicken. 

While I’ve been describing the box the company has put itself in, Nikon isn’t in any serious trouble yet, despite being bottled up in the declining middle ground market I described yesterday. Sales and user confidence are eroding, sure, but Nikon’s been putting bandaids on those problems, which has bought them some time. 

The big bandaid lately has been shoring up the (FX) DSLR lineup at the top of that middle ground, both with bodies and lenses. The D750 and D810, in particular, are very nice cameras and amongst the best products you can find in the middle ground. The f/1.8 lens set has proven to be quite good value and pushes the old f/2.8 set into the background. The pertinent questions those products raise are these: are they the right cameras and lenses, and are they truly indicative of Nikon’s future?

I hope not. And again, I really like my D810 and D750. That’s because I don’t think FX DSLRs and lenses—even with strong downward pricing—are the future.They’re part of the future, almost certainly, but they aren’t the total future. What Nikon’s actions of late have given them is a strong stake at the top of the middle ground, but the middle ground is much, much bigger than FX (or at least it should be). 

Yes, I’ve been very hard on Nikon in the past few years. In my view it seems that they’ve missed a critical fork in the road. Sure, the uber rich and the pros working to distinguish themselves at the quality end are still active in the FX world, but that’s a subset of camera making. As noted yesterday, FX is really only a piece of the dwindling middle ground. As we all know by now, smartphones are a huge part of the lowest ground, where simple and "good enough" live. 

Inaction in the middle ground is what’s causing the contraction in camera sales. And that middle ground almost certainly covers the m4/3 to APS/DX realm due to price points and the necessary size/weight/performance targets. We can argue about whether 1” sensors, large sensor compacts, and FX DSLRs are truly middle ground or not, though I’d tend to group all of them in, too.

Thing is, it isn’t just putting great sensors into mirrorless cameras that actually solves the contraction problem. While I think the Sony A6000 is a very nice camera (review coming shortly), the simple fact of the matter is that it really doesn’t do anything that the middle-ground cameras—previously all the crop DSLRs—don’t already do. So in essence, you buy an A6000 to get smaller and lighter, but you pay the price of learning a new system and starting a new lens set. I’m not convinced that’s enough gain for most people to consider. They’re better off using what they’ve got and putting the money not spent in a savings or retirement account. I’d also argue that this is why we’re seeing a decline in camera sales: some folk just aren’t convinced that a “new” camera in the middle ground is better than their “old” one. 

As I’ve been writing for five years now, “cameras” need a rethink. And that rethink needs to be almost all software based, not how small or fast or good you can make the hardware. 

Consider this set of assumptions:

  • All camera/firmware settings are defined by XML tags (e.g. XML_D400_ShootingMenu_ImageQuality=NEF)
  • All hardware parameters/controls are defined by XML tags (e.g. XML_D400_AF_MoveFocus=+1)
  • Additional UserTags are added to the EXIF standard (e.g. UserTagJob=Thom’s Engagement Party).
  • Firmware is modified to understand tags and even sequences of tags from external devices and files and act accordingly.
  • Bluetooth is added to the camera.

With those things in place, an iOS or Android app can tether my mobile device to set up and control my camera. Anything that can be set on the camera can now be triggered from the mobile device. If the app on the mobile device allows me to name and save “sets” I can almost instantly completely reconfigure my camera. If we extend sets to have sequence and timing, I can trigger just about anything I want my camera to do quickly. “Bracket anything” suddenly becomes possible. Moreover, my settings, notes, annotation, keywords, and more will be forever in the metadata of the image from the beginning, not entered later (though obviously you could add/modify/delete these in software later if you wanted to). 

Add a few more things (e.g. UserTagDesiredFilename= {year}{month}{day}{UserTagJob}{Sequence} or UserTagDesiredOutcome=Facebook[800 pixel long axis, JPEG Quality=50, AddIDPlate]), and we’ve got a fully programmable camera that can help automate much of our workflow. Put that together with Windows/Macintosh/Linux programs—preferably our existing choices such as Lightroom or Photoshop—that understand all these new goodies and can follow instructions (;~), and we’re well on our way to having a camera we’d really want, regardless of whether it’s compact, mirrorless, or DSLR. I’d be buying new cameras immediately. If I’m right, the middle ground would blossom into significant growth again.

Better still, now couple all that with automated WiFi connections (also managed by the Bluetooth connection ;~). Now the actual moving of data from one place to another can also be directed by the user’s preset instructions. 

So back to where I started today: is Nikon going out of business? No. Do they need a strong and clear vision of what the camera of the future looks like? Absolutely. Give me 1” compacts, DX mirrorless, and FX DSLRs—the entire middle ground—but make them all communicate the same way, make them use the same settings, commands, tags, options—and thus the same software programs—and suddenly we have what Apple has with iPhone/iPad/Macintosh: a clear line of products from small to large, fast to fastest, modest priced to expensive, all of which share strong DNA and which may even give you a reason to own one of each. (Note carefully how I said 1” compact, DX mirrorless, and FX DSLR. Yes, that means an end to DX DSLRs and no FX mirrorless, at least for the time being. It’s a more clearly delineated product line that reinforces itself rather than duplicates.) 

The scary proposition to me is that the recent FX bodies (D4, D6xx/D800x, Df, D750) don’t really show me a clarity of vision in Nikon’s management. They’re wedging products in between each other and using smallish, arbitrary differences to make them stand out from one another rather than boldly moving into the 21st century via software and products that are properly positioned from small to big, lowest performance to highest, lowest cost to highest. 

As a camera company, you shouldn’t care whether a user buys an RX1, RX10, RX100, A6000, or A7. What you want is the customer. If the customer likes what they got and needs one of the lower/higher options, they’ll stick with you for their other needs. This is where Nikon is currently failing. DSLR users aren’t buying Nikon 1’s as compact cameras, while many DX users are moving off into different systems because they don’t want FX. Even if the DX user moves to FX, that’s only a temporary solution for Nikon that just moves their original problem from the middle of the middle ground to the top of the middle ground ;~). 

Both Canon and Sony are getting this “more right” than Nikon at the moment, though in different ways. 

Canon has kept a great deal of separation between most of its products. They only have three full frame bodies (6D, 5DIII, and 1Dx) and those are very widely spaced apart. The Canon APS bodies are squeezed into a tighter space, but if you just consider it SL1, Rebel, 7DII you also get a wide spacing with a lot of Rebel options in the middle position. (After all, a lot of those Rebels are generational holdovers, the same problem Nikon got themselves into with DX DSLRs.) The G7 X and EOS M are also widely spaced, though the lower end PowerShot stuff is a bit of a mess that still needs unwinding. 

Sony seems to have discovered the right mix in compacts and mirrorless with the RX and A lines. I note also that the PlayMemories apps and other Sony-distinguishing features are pretty ubiquitous across the line, not hoarded for an arbitrary differentiation. While it took them a long time to get there, I can pretty much go from my RX100III—the smallest of the bunch—right through to the A7r at the top without really batting an eyelash in terms of trying to figure out settings/controls or finding something arbitrarily missing. I simply pick the right tool for the job at any given time.

Still, both the Canon and Sony cameras are just that: cameras. Cameras that were defined by DCF definitions made back in the 1990’s. The hardware has gotten better, but the software/workflow that solves user problems is still mired in Ye Olden Dayes. Heck, the 8.3 file names we’re stuck with date back into the 1960’s. 

So in the end it doesn’t really matter that Nikon hasn’t gotten their middle ground Coolpix P through FX lines all aligned perfectly: all those are just 1990’s cameras with modern parts crammed into a small selling space. The answer, obviously, is to increase the size of that selling space and get the products correctly aligned. 

Nikon will survive. As will Canon and Sony. 

If I were Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, or Samsung, I’d be all over (mostly) abandoning DCF for a modern software system that communicates outward and controls inward plus has a modern metadata focus to it, such as the one I suggest above. Do it right and do it fast enough, and the Canikony triumvirate might actually give up some meaningful market share in what would once again be a growing market. Don’t do it and they’ll be consigned to trying to nibble market share from slow but very big and powerful leaders.  

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