Some of you might not remember Jean-Louis Gassée, former high level executive of Apple and CEO of Be. Still others of you may remember him but not think all that highly of him ("he’s no Steve Jobs...”). Personally, I’ve found him to be an insightful writer on technology via his Monday Note blog.
While he was writing recently about Apple blocking ads in their new OS versions, it struck me that some of his points were highly applicable to what’s happening in cameras. Particularly this: "Losing trust is bad for the bottom line – no economy can function well without it. When you lose the consumer’s trust, you’re condemned to a chase for the next wave of suckers.” A bit further on: "Apple’s ‘ulterior' motive is making everyday use of its products more pleasant, resulting in more sales: the usual ecosystem play.”
Yes, yes, and emphatically yes.
I write about the race to the bottom from time to time. To a large degree, that’s exactly what Nikon did to themselves with the still-continuing onrush of hundreds of Coolpix cameras, the Nikon 1, and even the low-end DSLR chase. To use Gassée’s words: next wave of suckers. There’s little or no trust in the group of photographers that are buying at the lower end of the market, though some are buying on previous trust of a brand name.
Another problem, of course, is that the rise of smartphone camera competence has helped those suckers self identify. They discover that they don’t need a compact camera, after all, this device that’s already in their pockets is more than good enough, and it does things that those cameras someone wants to sell me don’t. And no automatic lens cover fails the minute it even thinks it sees a grain a sand (I’m looking at you Sony RX100IV ;~).
I’ve exhorted Nikon time and again to think more about ecosystem, and to make it stronger. I’ve also pointed out that the once secure ecosystem they did have (DSLRs) is now sprouting leaks, getting people sampling out of the ecosystem, and more and more often failing to get people to update the products they do have in the ecosystem.
As Gassée writes, it’s all about trust. Before you commit to an ecosystem, you want to trust it. Once you’re in an ecosystem, you absolutely want to trust it or else you begin to rethink your commitment.
Interchangeable lens cameras are an ecosystem. An ecosystem that includes cameras, lenses, flashes, software, and much more. Nikon has handled some parts of that ecosystem well—Nikon has earned a fair amount of trust with products for FX users, though you have to be careful never to rest on your laurels, as Sony’s A7 assault continues to show. On the other hand, Nikon has lost much of that very same trust in the D600 dust, D800 focus, D750 shadow, and on-going customer service mistakes such as the recent misnamed “marketing service initiative".
Nikon also seems to think ecosystems have to be completely proprietary, thus there should be no official third-party lens or software support. Not true. The company at the center of an ecosystem can indeed control the ecosystem, but the ecosystem always thrives far more—and thus makes more sales for its creator—if others are allowed to play, even if they have to follow some rules.
Not a lot of companies get ecosystems right. Even ones that do get it right sometimes stray from the path when the bean counters and short-sighted-stock valuations lead them astray. The one thing that has saved Nikon is that Canon doesn’t really do any better when it comes to trust and ecosystem. So if you actually need a high-end photographic tool, you’re basically choosing between which company you trust more, even though you don’t actually trust any of them.
Let me ask it straight out: do any of us trust any camera company to do the right thing by their products, bottom to top? I’m sure a few of you will mention Fujifilm and Sony, but they make mistakes, too. Also, don’t forget this: had you put your trust in Sony SLT four years ago, would it still be there?
At the end of the day, the camera companies want our business. They want it more than ever because there’s less of that business to go around now (and that’s partly or even mainly due to their previous mistakes). Yet I sense that the customer trust levels are lower than ever.
Build trust and they will come. Break trust and they will go. Simple as that.