The DSLR Cash Cow is Alive For How Long? 

We're starting to get a better understanding about how Canon and Nikon see "we'll continue to support the DSLR." With the 1DX Mark III and D780 in the books, a peak at the D6, plus some strong rumors about two other models, the answer is probably going to be disappointing to a lot of DSLR owners. (And now you'll see why I posted my "Can a Better DSLR Exist" article just prior to these launches.)

What I'm seeing is the traditional Milk the Cow approach to the DSLR to mirrorless transition, and not an overly well done version of that, too. All the accountants in charge at Canon and Nikon appear to think that there's still "some money" left in the DSLR till they can extract, but they don't want to spend too much in money or effort to get it out. 

The 1DX m3 update turned out to be predictable and mostly a mash-up of existing Canon tech, despite all the predictions of "big surprises." Did we really need four years to stick in a faster card slot, add DPAF and better video to the sensor, and figure out how to offer HEIF? Sure, there's a lot of the usual top-of-the-line tweaking in it, particularly to the focus system, but the Mark III feels a lot more Mark II.5-ish to me. There's no "urgency" in the 1DX m3 design: virtually everything in the Mark III was predictable when the Mark II came out, and it took the usual amount of time to produce it.

From what we know of the D6, I think you'll see much the same from Nikon at the high end, and that's more predictable. The 1, 3, 5 were the big changes on eight year boundaries and the 2 and 4 (and soon 6) were the smaller ones on four year boundaries (and of course, the even smaller s updates on two year boundaries). Again, once the details are revealed, look closely to see if there was any urgency or additional push to produce something better than expectations.

Meanwhile, one Canon executive in Europe is quoted as saying that EF lens development will no longer be pursued. Another indication that the 1DX m3 (and probably D6) may be the last of the top-end DSLRs. Nikon, on the other hand, introduced a replacement for the 300mm f/2.8 f-mount prime that's...a zoom. And which is non-competitive for most photographers (it's not in a mirrorless mount, it's not light, it's not affordable).

Truly, I don't see a lot changing at the top of the DSLR world, though I'll always take any progress or performance improvement offered. Canon and Nikon will get some pros to upgrade, I'm absolutely sure, particularly if the focus improvements are truly clear improvements. But these are pros that are hanging onto DSLRs for the moment, and I'm not sure anything has been done to staunch the increasing leakage to the Sony A9. 

The Nikon D780 shows how to undermine an update. Don't get me wrong, in almost all respects that new camera should be a somewhat better camera than the one it replaces, but the word "somewhat" shouldn't be in this launch cycle at all. Both Canon and Nikon need some "see, we're still the tech leader than knows photographers better than anyone else" mojo right now. 

The D780 seems to be the opposite of that. A lot of small changes that benefit Nikon but not always the user, plus a lot of expected low-hanging fruit that spills over from the mirrorless and D850 efforts. What else was there in the D780 update?

Here's the thing: the D780 update came almost five years after the D750 and seems like a rather mild update to many. (Consider this: the D750 sells for US$1500 and the D780 for US$2300; is there US$800 worth or real difference in the two, and if not, which one would you buy?) 

If we predict out into the future, that means no D780 update until 2025 (if then). Can the modest changes of the D780 really sustain the mid-range DSLR line that far out? I don't think so. Because Nikon is going to have to update the Z6 long before that, and it's likely that they're going to just further leapfrog the D780 and thus obsolete that whole DSLR product line.

This is basically true for the 1DX m3 and D6, too: they have to suffice through to the 2024 Paris Olympics, but I'm pretty sure that an RX and Z9 will be taking their place sometime between the Tokyo and Paris Olympics. So a 1DX m4 and D7 look less and less likely, or will have less and less change. In essence, Canon and Nikon just fully tipped their hands: DSLRs are getting lip service and a quick makeover, but the real renovation job is over there in mirrorless, it just hasn't fully arrived at the former leaders yet.

In my "better DSLR" article I left out a number of things that could have been done to sustain DSLRs. For example, instead of the current LCD overlay system Nikon uses in the optical viewfinder, they could have put in an OLED-based one. That technology exists, and it exists well enough to basically build a hybrid-type DSLR. Only problem? It adds costs. Guess what Canon and Nikon are 100% averse to right now? Costs. 

Perhaps there's an accountant in Tokyo that can explain exactly how the path being taken by Canon and Nikon is "optimal." He should expect a huge counter argument in response from me, though. The camera makers have long patterned themselves after the...wait for it...automotive industry product practices, and the whole Japanese consumer electronics efforts have tended to do the same. Major redevelopment many years apart, minor iteration in between, preferably with annual or bi-annual updates. Even the whole model lineup confusion is basically patterned after the auto industry, most notably Toyota. 

Is that really the optimal product approach for a declining market with a loyal customer base, though? I don't think so. Indeed, I'm predicting another big (-20%+) down year for cameras in 2020, despite the fact we're likely to see quite a few new (and some overdue) models announced. The reason? Those new cameras just aren't appealing enough to the remaining customers to attract a big update cycle. The recently announced new DSLRs are witness of that.

In MBA parlance, the camera world is becoming a battle between gross profit margin (GPM) and net profit margin (NPM). The difference between the two tends to be impacted by scale of the market. As the market size has changed, the balance between those two things starts to get wonky. But if you steer too hard towards one or the other, things get wonkier. I'm arguing that the camera makers are doing just that: by micromanaging GPM too hard, they're actually now hurting their NPM.

Put a different way, what the camera makers need most right now is More Sales Volume. What they're doing in product development won't generate that. 


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