WWTD? (What Would Thom Do)

I’ve now written for over a decade about what I would have been doing to keep cameras relevant to modern times. If you haven’t read my original diatribe (or updated versions of the original 2007 post) about needing Communicating, Programmable, and Modular cameras (CPM), it would probably be wise to do so. 

While we talk (and write) about mirrorless versus DSLR, more megapixels versus better megapixels, sensor size, frame rates, and a host of other features and performance aspects of cameras, the reason why we’re doing that is because that’s really the only choice the Japanese camera makers have given us. 

Technically, mirrorless is to DSLR the same thing that everyone has always admired about Japanese engineering: incremental improvement coupled with miniaturization and component simplification. The “innovation” word gets used too broadly and vaguely for my taste. Mirrorless was not a user innovation, it was an engineered improvement that reduced body parts, simplified alignment and manufacturing, and provided the camera companies high cost reduction for basically the same product (e.g., something that had an imaging sensor in it on which you could mount a lens, et.al.). 

Kodak was really the original digital camera pioneer, particularly with “DSLRs”. So much of what we associate with the transition from film to digital was actually “innovated”—there’s that word again—by Kodak. Unfortunately, that company's management wanted to run the old coal plant rather than transition to solar (oops, wrong essay, but actually a point that’s 100% on point if you allow me to force the metaphor). 

This is not to dismiss the engineering miracles of modern cameras, or Japanese engineering. Even though a DSLR—and even mirrorless cameras—is recognizably similar to the old film SLRs and is often controlled about the same, what’s inside has iterated so many times that the work inside is unrecognizable. If Henry Ford were brought back from the dead and told to examine a Telsa, he’d easily recognize it as a car, but he might be in shock after he tried looking for the engine. Something similar would be true of someone like George Eastman looking at cameras.

The “change” that occurred with photography that’s not been acknowledged by our camera designs (or by much of our software, for that matter) has to do with workflow and viewflow. We’re still taking the film out of our cameras (cards out of cameras), driving to our local film processor (taking the card and bringing it to our office computer’s card reader), waiting for the machine to spool in the film and process it (software ingest and demosaic), examining it (image browser on the computer screen) [loop back to shooting from here, if needed], possibly coming up with directions and crop information for the lab to do (fiddling with Photoshop), waiting for that to happen (hourglass cursor), [loop back from here, if needed], having the lab print (exporting to the right size/format), framing the final print and hanging it up for others to look at (post our image in our social media).

Don’t get me wrong. I much prefer the same workflow in digital as opposed to chemical, as I’m fully in control over every step of the process, not some minimum wage worker that has no idea what’s in those bottles they’re feeding the machines. But it’s the same workflow. If anything, I spend more time doing it than I used to because I’m doing all the work now. That’s fun for about two weeks ;~). Or until you retire and need a hobby.

Still, you’d think that the workflow would have changed by now. Computers were supposed to improve productivity, after all. Oh, wait, workflow has improved. But really only for smartphone users. Seriously, it’s been more than a decade now since the iPhone appeared, has no one in Tokyo actually noticed?

That’s workflow. But viewflow has changed (and not changed), too.

I think we take photos to show others. At least I think that. When I’m using my iPhone that seems to be the usual result of using the camera app. But when I’m using my dedicated camera? Hmm.

Viewflow used to work in one of four basic ways: (1) small prints circulated by hand or mail; (2) prints on walls; (3) images used in publication; and (4) getting stuck on someone’s couch after dinner watching three hours worth of boring, unedited slides while hearing stories you aren’t interested in.

Some serious snark snuck in there. My apologies. Snark is one of the ways I demonstrate my dissatisfaction with something.

Still, how has viewflow changed for digital cameras? #2, 3, and 4 are exactly as they were in the film era, and #1 has really only changed in that we can’t do that very easy with our digital cameras, because #1 was replaced by Facebook, et.al. In order for us to do #1 we have more workflow to do. And in order to do #2, #3, and #4 we pretty much are stuck with old workflow methods just made slightly more modern. Actually, hardly anyone does #4 any more, because that’s what three hours of shaky 4K video is for now.

Sorry, snarky again.

You’d think that viewflow would have changed by now. Oh, wait, it has. But only for smartphone users. Seriously, it’s been more than a decade now since that change occurred, has no one in Tokyo actually noticed?

I’m pretty sure Tokyo’s noticed. 

The problem is that they are mostly waiting for someone else to solve the problem. (Who that would be is unknown.) Then they’ll refine that approach, iterate it, and make it smaller. 

In the meantime, they wonder why camera sales are down (or Yay! They’re Now Only Flattish!) and that most images are made with a smartphone these days. Simple answer: casual photographers had problems. Smartphones solved them. Cameras don’t.

If you’re not solving a user problem with your products, then you damn well better entertain your customers. At least Sony has a game company, movie studio, and record label ;~). 

I’m sorry, but I’m not entertained by small buttons in the wrong places, overly complex menus that are only partially touch sensitive, or minute changes in specifications. Just as I wasn’t entertained by red, pink, yellow, blue, purple, camoflauged, and other-colored cameras. (You may remember I called that trend correctly: short-lived and desperate.) I’m not entertained by new features that need new—but unfortunately flawed—software, or which have nuance to them that is not even remotely documented. I’m not entertained by companies keeping everything so proprietary and secret that those of us who might be able to do something about the deficiencies simply have no place to start (and would probably be sued for doing so). 

I see lots of engineering and accounting successes in Tokyo. I see very few management and overall product design successes. Actually, I see a lot of product management folk beating around the bush. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong bush.

So WWTD? (What Would Thom Do?)

It’s simple, really. First, you have to keep doing the thing that you’re good at (incremental and miniaturization engineering, plus counting beans). I’m not at all advocating that any Japanese company put a stop to the things that they’re good at. 

What I am advocating—and have been for more than a decade—is that cameras get brought fully into the 21st century and designed to solve the new user problems that have arisen. And to shorten and automate as much of the workflow and viewflow as possible.

That means that, at a minimum, cameras have to communicate with the rest of the world, and not using inexpensive 10-year old parts that will slow down your network or computer. Apple gets this. That’s why the darned computer I’m typing this on has Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1, even though for my typing I really don’t need either. Of course, the minute I press “post,” I’m going to appreciate that my computer is not running at a slow Wi-Fi speed. 

So, Big Job Number One: cameras need to be really great communicators. Moreover, they should be adaptable to communicate via my mode of choice (minimum: USB 3.1, 802.11ac 5Ghz, LTE). You know, I don’t even care if the camera only comes with a really good USB 3.1 and I would have to buy options to do fast Wi-Fi, Ethernet, LTE, or any other communiction protocol I end up needing (the Apple "dongle approach"). That was sort of the point to my “modular” desire back in 2007, though modular image sensors and card/storage options would be nice, too.

However, being a great communicator also requires that we know how to communicate with you. Cameras speak “proprietary.” Ever tried to tether a camera? Yeah, it might work. The problem is that most of that tethering is done by a software vendor licensing an Software Development Kit (SDK) that’s really not much of an SDK: it’s really a poorly documented set of calls you can make to a proprietary black box that isn’t documented at all. 

Which is Big Job Number Two: an open and programmatic interface that isn’t a minimal set of proprietary black box calls. So we can make Job One do what we need Job One to actually do.

The funny thing is that WWTD hasn’t really changed in 10 years. Had a camera company given me a full engineering team and authority, we would have been done seven years ago. Just before dedicated camera sales peaked and started their plummet. My claim has been—and continues to be—that if the Japanese camera makers had built it, we would have all come. A camera that takes nice images but has old-school workflow and viewflow would have been uncompetitive with a camera that takes nice images but helps you make them look the way you want and get to where they need to go with minimal interaction. We would have all had to update to a communicating, programmable camera. Smartphones would be a nice convenience still, but not really competitive with what you could do with a dedicated CPM camera.

What I’m describing is a management failure. Not just by one company, but by all of them. That’s somewhat unprecedented in tech history, though it has happened before where an entire industry goes haywire. 

There’s too much “we know what you want” in Tokyo that’s not backed up by the evidence. Sony probably comes the closest to understanding what I’m writing about here, but still: there's way too much “we know what you want” without truly understanding what we want. 

We wanted it a decade ago, we still haven’t gotten it.

Now for a point that you might not have noticed. I sit writing this in an emerging country far from home where my US-based mobile phone service is fully operative. Fully operative, as in I’m getting 4G data speeds on my iPhone, my iPad, and my Mac, all while using my existing data plan. But you guessed it: not from any camera I know about, let alone the one that I am carrying. 

When I started contemplating my original CPM article in 2007, I was sitting on the side of Kilimanjaro reading the New York Times on my iPhone, and able to send photos to any email account. But only photos from my iPhone. Not from my Nikon DSLR. 

You’d think that cameras would have changed by now. Oh, wait, they have. But only for smartphone users. Seriously, it’s been more than a decade now, has no one in Tokyo actually noticed?

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