Who Leads, Who Follows, Who Wins?

One way to look at the changing landscape of cameras is to look at the "who is leading, and who waited to follow?" question. As it turns out, the true leaders in deploying significant technologies have almost always ended up with higher market share initially. Sometimes the followers caught up and re-asserted themselves, but not always.

A few examples:

Autofocus — While Nikon and others experimented and prototyped and even produced nascent examples of autofocus for film SLRs, it was Minolta that burst out into the lead with phase detect autofocus built into the camera. It was being slow to the autofocus era that made Nikon slip from the leader in film SLRs to third place. Eventually the Honeywell patent suit against Minolta zapped the Maxxum momentum completely, and Nikon was able to push back into a second place position, though now well behind Canon, which had jumped in with both feet quickly, mastered marketing messages, and took over the film SLR leadership.

DSLR — While Kodak, Fujifilm, and yes, Nikon experimented and prototyped and even produced examples of early DSLRs, it was Nikon that made the first major move into making this more a consumer product with the D1, quickly updated into the D1h/D1x and supplemented with the D100. Not only did this almost immediately push the film SLR market into contraction, it took Nikon back to a leadership position. At least until Canon followed and got aggressive at doing things that Nikon didn't initially push (e.g. more pixels, larger sensor sizes).

Mirrorless — The m4/3 duo was really the first to make a major move here and established early dominance, particularly in the markets that first embraced mirrorless cameras (the Asian markets). Sony moved aggressively very soon after, and took over the leadership position. In full frame, Leica was very early with what can be said to be "mirrorless", but Sony was the one that established affordable and more conventional full frame mirrorless. Nikon was relatively early to mirrorless, but with oddball and strange pricing efforts. Canon was late to the party, but has now started moving faster and more aggressively.

We have basically seven camera "companies" that have survived 50 years or more through all the different sophisticated camera technology rollouts. I put "companies" in quotes because some have changed hands and the owner is now different. Those seven are: Canon, Fujifilm, Leica, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax (Pentax->Hoya->Ricoh), and Sony (Minolta->KonicaMinolta->Sony). Panasonic is an eighth company you might throw in there, but their history doesn't really include film SLRs.

So who are leaders, followers, and winners?

  • Canon — Initially a follower in film SLR, eventually a leader in autofocus SLR; then a follower in DSLR that again flipped to leader; then a follower in mirrorless which may be flipping to leader. Sense a pattern there? Canon isn't generally the first mover, but when they move they move. I think that anyone who underestimates the EOS M and whatever full frame mirrorless Canon decides to produce needs to rethink their position. I'd call Canon opportunistic and well managed. I wouldn't call them the innovator that's going to trigger the next changeover in camera designs by leading the way, but they are quick to understand when that changeover is occurring. Follower that becomes a Winner.
  • Fujifilm — I'm really tempted to just call Fujifilm a Dabbler and move on. Historically, the Fuji Photo Film side of the company has been in virtually everything, starting with film, then expanding into optics, and eventually cameras of various sorts. But the company also has been a leader who looks beyond the products they started with, which has taken them on many tangents (medical, copying, printing, instant photos, and much more). The company is now quite large, but not the digital camera group. I would tend to say that Fujifilm has been a Leader that often backs away. They were an early participant in DSLRs, for example, then completely abandoned them. 
  • Leica — We have to go all the way back to the rangefinder film cameras to find any real threads of leadership at Leica. Indeed, their most mentioned camera even today is still a rangefinder, albeit a digital one. They were late to film SLR, late to autofocus, never made it to DSLR, late to digital (though that made them early in mirrorless; technically you could say they actually pioneered mirrorless way back in 2006, not m4/3 in 2008/2009). Follower.
  • Nikon — This is the most curious company of the bunch. Technically, you can easily see that Nikon was tinkering with virtually every new camera technology that came along, and almost always out in front of the other companies. They were first or early with prototypes to SLR, autofocus, DSLR, and yes, even mirrorless. They were first to patent VR and on-sensor PD, among other things, though not first to make them mainstream. But Nikon truly only entered the market as a leader with SLR and DSLR. They let others lead in autofocus and mirrorless. Nikon is also the company that has grabbed the lead or come close a number of times, but never fully asserts themselves to the point where they hold any lead. Temporary Leader that becomes a Follower. 
  • Olympus — Another curious company. Their problem has traditionally been that they are a follower that never manages to win. Late to SLR, late to autofocus, late to DSLR. This led them to experiment with trying to find a market that they could win (Reis & Trout style): bridge cameras and mirrorless being the two prime examples, but the half frame SLR (original Pen), and small SLR are additional examples of how they tried to "niche themselves." Follower who branches off.
  • Panasonic — The company with the least history. They seemed to have seen the rise of digital at the turn of the century as an opportunity (they were already in the digital video realm). Along the way they've partnered with Leica and bought Sanyo (who was a major OEM provider of digital cameras to others, though Panasonic mainly wanted them for batteries and solar products). Despite the early entry into m4/3 with the G1 and their many experiments with things like the LX100, it's difficult to call Panasonic anything other than a Follower in terms of their overall camera history, and they've been quick to pull back at times on their efforts due to low ROI (a trait Nikon is now employing). They also lean more towards the video side than any of the other digital camera makers other than perhaps Canon and particularly Sony.
  • Pentax — Being small means you have to be faster and nimbler. Pentax was early to SLR and had a long run there, but from there the story gets clouded by size and cashflow and corporate machinations that ended up out of their control. Being even a little late to anything can hurt the smaller players. It's ridiculously hard to be the smaller player, be a follower, and to eventually win. In fact, it's fairly easy to be a small player that's a follower and eventually lose. To some degree, that's what eventually happened to Pentax as the camera group became a pawn in other games by bigger companies. Hoya wanted other aspects of Pentax, particularly the medical side. Hoya I think can now be reliably said to have never really wanted the camera side, so guess what happens when you're following and your resources start to get squeezed? The transfer to Ricoh hasn't changed anything, as Ricoh now has its own problems to deal with, and Pentax is a very small part of the overall company that's never been fully integrated. Follower, and getting slower at doing so.
  • Sony — I'm going to include the Minolta/Konica entities in Sony's history, because Sony pretty much took on the Minolta mount, nomenclature, base designs, and most of the Minolta/Konica camera group in their acquisition, and has been iterating off that for some time now. Thus, in this augmented history we have a leader in autofocus and an early mover in DSLR. And now an early mover in mirrorless that became the leader. Overall, a Leader that sometimes becomes a Winner.

Now these are broad generalizations. I could write a doctoral thesis on the details that lead me to the above simple statements. You may not completely agree with my assessments, but I'm willing to argue them as a strawman for the purposes of discussion. 

Some will note that I used the boldface Winner only twice: Canon and Sony. I used the boldface Leader only three times: Fujifilm, Nikon, and Sony. I'd argue that, removing Fujifilm, is very much the historical context to where we are today. The three remaining companies I just mentioned currently own 60%+ of the compact camera market and 80%+ of the ILC camera market. 

Winner is the easiest to evaluate and conclude about. Who sells the most, and does so with clear and reasonable profitability. Leader is a little trickier to evaluate, as you can lead with a technology, a feature, or a performance aspect, but that lead is often quickly matched by the others. To me, to lead means not just to find the innovation in the first place, but to successfully bring it to the forefront of the market but then hold that lead for some meaningful amount of time. You figure out the true leaders by looking at who the followers follow.

Which brings us to my final point. To a varying degree, everyone follows everyone else. Any company that finds a new technology, feature, performance aspect, product type, or anything else that might result in "leading" (and hopefully eventually "winning") will almost certainly be followed by the rest. 

Thus we constantly have this pull back towards sameness in the products. As any new innovation matures (autofocus, DSLR, mirrorless, etc.), we find all of the players tend to get there with their implementation. Right now we're not quite to that "everyone is following" game with mirrorless.  Nikon and Pentax are conspicuously missing, and Canon took some time before they finally started to get serious about it. 

The curious thing is that DSLR has now only three players in it: Canon, Nikon, and Pentax. Most of the followers all gave up on this market. And two of those remaining players now basically "lead and win everything" in that category, as they hold over 95% of the global market share. Don't discount that and don't overestimate mirrorless. DSLRs still account for a large majority of ILC sales. As I've outlined before, we're still a couple of years away from mirrorless possibly catching DSLR in sales volume. 

Thus, the thing that I'm watching is how fast and aggressive Canon moves to go from Follower to Winner in mirrorless across the board. They've already started to make that transition with crop sensor mirrorless, but when will full frame be added to that push? 

Nikon, meanwhile, is once again in their traditional Temporary Leader that becomes a Follower position. They did some pioneering things in mirrorless (Temporary Leader), messed that up and backed away from it. Given that I'm expecting Canon to move to the Winner position, that will make Nikon once again a Follower if they ever figure out how they're going to re-enter the mirrorless market.

Thing is, customers like Winners. Winning has a gravitational pull on customers that reinforces the win. Do you as a consumer want to buy the "third best selling" product? No. Indeed, in order to do so, you have to convince yourself that there's something the rest of the world didn't notice or figure out. Or the product has to be offered to you at considerable discount or convenience. Either way, it's a justification excuse. 

The so-called Fan Boy phenomenon isn't anything recent. It's a curious combination of two very different groups: (a) those that want to be associated with the "winner"; and (b) those that need to convince themselves that they are on the winning team. Sometimes (a) attracts (b), sometimes (b) helps produce (a). 

All this, of course, says nothing at all about photography ;~). I know great photographers who use Canon, Fujifilm, Leica, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, or Sony cameras. 

So as we finish up the Spring Buying Season, you have to ask yourself a much more fundamental question: does buying X help me make better photographs? If the answer is no, you've probably gotten caught up in wanting to be on the winning team (however you justify the definition of winning).

The irony of writing this article is that I don't have any truly photographic excursions planned until fall. So all this summer I'm basically looking at gear and trying to catch up on reviews. Doh!

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