Is it Check or Checkmate?

The last of its kind?

Recently, Sony introduced a new line of digital cameras called the NEX line. They capture 16 megapixel images, 1080/60p or 24p high-definition movies, the ability to use a range of lens just like traditional SLRs (single lens reflex cameras), the ability to shoot sweeping panoramas in conventional and “3D” mode and a host of accessories for microphones, remote controls and flash photography. The camera body measures in at about 4 inches by 2 inches by and 1 ½ inches and the camera and lens weigh about 16.5 ounces. It now costs $699 but one can assume that it will, as with many consumer electronic gadgets, come down in price even as the features become even more impressive.

As a camera it is quite a wonder, but does it matter? In an earlier post (Real-life strategic thinking) I proposed that one of the better ways to develop strategic thinking skills was to think through real-life and real-time situations as opposed to looking at cases where the outcomes are known. In looking at the situation facing the head of a camera division or company, such as Sony, Nikon and others, what might we do?

One of the startling things about smartphones is how quickly the quality of the pictures and videos has improved, seemingly without a lot of apparent effort or emphasis. When Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone he positioned it as three revolutionary devices in one: a phone, a touchscreen iPod, and an internet device. What he didn’t mention, except as an aside, was that it had a camera.

On a recent trip, I didn’t even bother to take one of the two compact digital cameras I have in favor of packing lighter and just using the camera on my smartphone for both still images and videos. In another post (Death of point-and-shoot?) we looked at how new methods of capturing and processing images will only serve to improve the photographic capability of smartphones. Perhaps the last area of real improvement in videography is, oddly enough, not the image but in sound, which tends to suffer due to camera (or smartphone) mounted microphones. Light, Bluetooth-enabled lapel microphones would greatly improve at modest cost the sound quality of many an amateur production. This too will come if not already.

The tight marriage in smartphones between its images and either Wi-Fi or broadband cellular network-enabled links to social media makes it easy to share images and videos from smartphones. There is no doubt one could enable a camera like the NEX to connect through a high-speed W-Fi to other devices or the internet, but what would be the point other than to simply mimic that which smartphones already do? In any case, why carry around a camera in addition to a smartphone?

The strategic thinking lies more, in this case, in how important this class of camera is to the health and future of the overall camera business for a Sony, Nikon, or Canon. For example:

  • Is there any evidence that such cameras are an effective way to get people hooked on a given camera brand in order to then move them up the food-chain to the more expensive digital SLRs? Or, do people make discrete and quite independent decisions about whether they will buy a digital SLR and if so the make?
  • Is there a danger that the point and shoot cameras become so good, like the NEX, that they cannibalize the sales of the pricier digital SLRs?
  • Is there any data that there are manufacturing scale economies gained by producing lenses for both lower-end cameras and higher-end cameras such that fighting a rear-guard action in the point-and-shoot market makes some sense or is the cost of fighting that battle too great?
  • At what point, if any, does it makes sense for some combination of Nikon, Canon and Sony camera groups to merge?
  • Are cameras at the upper end of the market destined, if not already, to cater to a small but enthusiastic cult of photographers who, on principle, will shun the idea of taking serious photos with smartphones much like audiophiles who today invest in vacuum tube amplifiers and expensive turntables for the vinyl albums they swear by? Like the firms that make that stereo gear, are the makers of traditional, standalone cameras headed for private ownership where love of the old-school ways of photography is as important as any significant return on investment?

Last week Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection. In 1973 they employed 120,000 people; they now have 18,000 employees. In 1976 they had a 90% share of photographic film in the U.S. The year before, one of Kodak’s employees, Steven Sasson, began work on the first digital camera; it used a charged coupling device and filed for U.S. patent 4,131,919 in May 1977.

Did the Romans understand when they first saw the Visigoths approaching Rome that it signaled the beginning of the end?

Image from Patent 4131919

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