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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

January 19, 2006

Konica-Minolta Lays an Egg

This is a bit of a shocker. After their merger a couple of years ago, Konica-Minolta have now announced that they're abandoning the photography market, apart from continuing to make digital SLR systems for Sony.

Presumably they've licenced their industry-leading anti-shake mechanism to Sony as well.

This seems to be part of the bigger picture of complete panic that set in following the advent of high-megapixel camera phones. Once Carphone Warehouse started selling more consumer digital cameras than Jessops, the writing was on the wall for the low end. Both Olympus and Nikon have previously announced that they're "concentrating on SLRs."

I'm part of a deeply conservative minority who would rather have separate devices. I'd rather not rely on one battery to support phone/music player/camera, and I'm serious enough about wanting to take a lot of photos that I'm willing to carry a separate camera with a spare battery to boot.

I think it's right that serious camera manufacturers shouldn't try to chase the happy snapper market, but they did it anyway, while the going was good.

I was thinking about this with regard to cars the other day. Most cars are built on platforms, so that a Golf/Passat/Beetle/Audi A3/A4/Seat Leon/Skoda Octavia share many of the same components and underpinnings. The differences between the cars are largely cosmetic and are really about the way they make you feel.

James bought an Audi A3 because it's a classy-looking car, and a bit less common than a Golf. On the other hand, I'd have bought the Golf, because - for the same money - you'd have got more. When you buy a luxury brand, expect to pay luxury prices for all the bits you get as standard with the non-luxury brand.

A Saab 93 Wagon will cost you around £5000 more than the equivalent Vauxhall Vectra, on which it's based. Audi make you pay a lot to get things like aircon, electric windows in the rear, and comfortable seats. The lesson is, don't look at the entry price, but one somewhere in the middle, to see if you can really afford it.

Now, the digital camera market has been a platform market, with most cameras built around Sony electronics. The key differentiators were the quality of the lenses, and the software that actually ran the cameras. But whereas platform cars are all carefully targeted at different parts of the market; and whereas a platform typically lasts 7-10 years (with one facelift) before replacement, happy-snapper digital cameras were all targeted at the same market, and were replaced with astonishing rapidity.

Camera manufacturers come from a background of being able to make a thing like a lens or body and then keep selling it for years and years and years. Once software enters the equation, however, the development cycle speeds up, and the demands of consumers become clamourous. With new models being released every few months, camera manufacturers began to see that the money they invested in R&D wasn't being returned in profit before the models were obsoleted. What they should have done, a few years ago, was step back and slow down. But capitalism is inherently wasteful, so they all continued competing with each other, in spite of the lack of profits, and kept releasing new models.

But the problem was, a lot of the new models were actually worse then their predecessors. 8 megapixel cameras, on the whole, do not take better images than 5 megapixel cameras. In fact, apart from increased file size (and increased ability to crop to a small area), the pictures were noisier. Consumers noticed, and sales slowed down.

The manufacturers want to go back to making things that would last a long time, like lenses which are separate from the camera. And they wanted to cater for a market that was willing to pay a premium - the SLR customers, who clearly don't mind carrying around a great big lump instead of a dinky little pocketable model.

It's very easy to make an SLR body, chuck in some Sony electronics, stick a lens on the front and call it macaroni. You can, in fact, offer the same body/electronics and a cheaper lens, together with a slightly crippled version of the camera's software, and presto have a new "budget" model.

Konica-Minolta were hurt - badly - by being too slow to market with a digital SLR; and then when it came out, it was too expensive compared to new budget models from Canon and Nikon. So they were screwed, and they've jacked it in and given the business to Sony. It's a shame, because the anti-shake technology they took so long to develop is really, really, excellent.

The lesson - with all software projects - is (as Steve Jobs said) that true artists ship. You have to release a version 1.0, and you have to postpone features for version 2.0. Konica-Minolta had an installed base of analogue SLR users who were waiting for a digital model that would accept their lenses. But a lot of them got fed up of waiting and went and bought a Nikon D70, instead.

Anti-shake, good as it is, could have waited for version 2.0.


  • James has cried foul at my characterisation of his choice of car. He says he tried the new Golf and it was shite to drive, and that the quality of the plastics is much lower than it used to be in the Mark IV.

    I can believe this as the Polo I just had on loan had crappy plastics as well.

    Then again, I was talking about cameras and not cars, so much.

    By Blogger bot37363838, at 6:43 am  

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