How to Make an Asset a Liability

Nikon's proprietary and smug nature may have been fine during the duopoly era, but now those things are starting to drag them down. 

Let's talk about lenses.

Basically, camera makers promote bodies (and kits) because of the lock-in effect. Once you've spent US$500+ on a body and then bought a lens or two to double or triple your commitment, you aren't going to quickly switch to another mount, because there's extra cost in doing so. 

Canon and Nikon, the long-time duopolists, both have produced and sold over 100 million lenses over the years. In the case of Nikon, I think that they've made clear mistakes in how they interpret that accomplishment. 

Let me list the things that Nikon has done that are now tripping them up big time:

  • Failed to recognize the mirrorless door — When mirrorless came along, the camera makers tended to promote mount adapters. Indeed, Fujifilm made a couple themselves. Why? Because of the lens lockup problem. You're less likely to switch to another camera system if you can't use your existing lenses. Solution? Convince people that it's fine to use your existing lenses via an adapter. Indeed, make sure the camera has manual focus aids to help people with that. 
  • Failed at their own mirrorless mount — Nikon 1, otherwise known as the CX mount, was intriguing in one sense: small, theoretically inexpensive cameras that might serve as compact camera replacements and DSLR gateways. Only Nikon did neither. They priced CX so it wasn't even close to a compact replacement and more expensive than their consumer DSLRs, and they withheld almost all the DSLR gateways (use of DSLR accessories, poor compatibility with F-mount, which became worse over time). Did they add manual focus aids for adapted lenses? Nope. 
  • Failed to develop a mirrorless system that uses the F-mount — Hey guys, you've got 100m lenses out there. People are buying mirrorless cameras. Put 1 and 2 together. It isn't rocket science. In fact, it's not science at all, but logic. Nikon will have no choice but to fix this failure. But that leads to another thing: Nikon will be last to address this failure. Dead last. Even Pentax was in (and then out) with a solution. 
  • Failed to recognize the crop sensor competition — In particular, DX as a lens set now looks terrible against the Fujifilm X mount (buzz, buzz). Unless of course, you want something 200mm or longer, or maybe an old 18-something zoom. DX is absolutely a gateway to the more expensive and pro DSLRs, but Nikon treats it like consumer compacts: put a slow but long zoom on it. Done. The only good news in this bullet is that Canon and Sony—both of whom have crop sensor competitors of their own—really aren't doing a clearly better job. Heaven help Nikon if one of those two suddenly figures this out. 
  • Failed to acknowledge third party lenses — This is actually an ongoing battle. Features within the Nikon DSLRs, such as AF Fine Tune, require knowing what lens is on the camera, which requires a valid lens ID. Nikon doesn't give those out. Nor do they say what will and won't be recognized. So with third-party lenses we get lens ID duplications, other IDs that aren't recognized properly, and worse. But it doesn't stop here. Nikon keeps tweaking the communications on the lens mount without documenting it. We've had plenty of third-party companies discovering that some small change rendered a feature unusable with their lenses (or worse, left the camera powered on, wasting battery). 
  • Failed to embrace Hollywood and video — This is the most perplexing of all, since at one time Nikon was the darling of Hollywood. Of course, over time, Nikkors were getting converted to PL mount, partly because Nikon is proprietary and not willing to disclose how to build something on either side of the F-mount bayonet. But now things are getting very dramatic. RED, BlackMagic, and others all have active EF mount systems. Rumor at the NAB trade show has it that Panasonic will be going that direction with a new VariCam. Canon, of course, has video cameras of their own that use the EF mount. So there's 100m lenses that can be used on lots of video cameras, but that huge lot of lenses all have a C at the start of their name. 

Here's the thing about proprietary systems: they die. At some point the company behind the proprietary system makes a wrong move, or the market changes, or something better comes along. When you fail to fix that wrong move, fail to change with the market, or somehow make something better yourself, you start the decline. 

Nikon has done all those things with their proprietary lens mount. The Nikon faithful are scratching their heads wondering why Nikon doesn't appear to be doing anything about any of those three things. Wrong moves aren't being fixed. Nikon isn't changing with the market. The closest you can come to a positive statement is that Nikon is trying to design better lenses (105mm f/1.4, 70-200mm f/2.8, 300mm f/4, 19mm PC-E are recent examples). 

But just making three new interesting lenses a year that have excellent optical performance is a rearguard action after the door has been open for far too long. 

Here's my problem: Nikon recently reorganized optics within the company. Everything related to glass is now in a single entity. The problem with that is said entity isn't a consumer-facing group, it's an internal efficiency plan ("...enabling flexible deployment of resources..."). The likelihood now is simply more of the same type of decision-making that got them to their current state, which is one of turning an asset into a liability. 

Thom's optics plan for Nikon:

  • Design a great mirrorless system that takes full advantage of the F-mount
  • Open the F-mount communications protocols to others, via licensing
  • Fill out the DX line so as to stay competitive with crop sensor camera makers such as Fujifilm,
  • Reconnect to Hollywood and the video industry (see second bullet)

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