Generic versus Specific

So let’s play a little product management game.

Here are the parameters that limit us:

  • No new competitors (vendors) will enter our market.
  • The market itself is a small-but-useful size, but it's not growing.
  • Most of the customers in the market already have product from an existing vendor.
  • All competitors have pretty much the same parts sources.

So why would a customer in this market buy a new product? 

  • They dropped or broke the one they had.
  • The product they have is very old and missing features/performance new models have.
  • They decided that the product they had wasn’t as good as another that’s available.
  • A new product might do something automatically that they were doing manually.

You might notice that all but one of the above statements apply to the car market (size/growth). You could also say that all but one of those statements applied to the personal computer market at one point (no new competitors). So we have some non-camera markets to examine to see what kept those companies in business and how they produced new sales for new products.

But that’s not the direction I’m going to go today. I want us to be thinking more out of the box. I want us to define a camera that doesn’t exist. 

I and others write often about cameras that are designed for sports (and photojournalism). The Canon 1DXm2, Canon 7Dm2, Nikon D5, Nikon D500, and Sony A9/A9m2 are the ones we usually point to in that context. When their predecessors were first developed, there wasn’t really a “sports camera.” Instead we had a general purpose film SLR to which you could add a sports viewfinder and motorized back. 

With sports cameras we write and talk about specific feature attributes: high frame rate, large buffer, easy image transfer, image annotation, robust and weatherproof camera build, low light and autofocus tracking performance, but not necessarily a lot of pixels at the sensor.

Recently I wrote in a comment somewhere that I didn't think that a sports camera was exactly what a wildlife shooter would want. Immediately, one reader sent me an email with a challenge: what would a camera designed for wildlife photographers look like?

Uh, it would be camouflage instead of black? ;~)

Actually, that's a pretty good starting point. How would the body be different? Camo would actually be a good idea. A lot of wildlife shooters currently use silicone covers that are camouflage designs. Thing is, when you're in a blind or a stationary position, you want to blend in. A lot of prey key in on movement, so anything easily seen of a solid color that sticks out and moves—i.e. you just panned—will tend to push them away from you. Those white Canon and Sony telephoto lenses are particularly problematic with this, but we're talking about cameras here. 

Some attributes of a wildlife camera would certainly be shared with those sports cameras: robust and weatherproof camera build, for instance. When I say weatherproof for wildlife, I also mean dust proof. That's actually the bigger issue many of us wildlife shooters face in the wild. I don't have to clean my sensor nearly as much when I'm shooting sports as when I'm shooting wildlife in the wild. Which also means I want better dust protection or in-camera sensor cleaning capabilities in my "wildlife camera.”

See what I’m doing here?

I’m trying to figure out how to get a subset of the customers I already have to buy again because I’ve solved their specific problems. Heck, if I do the work right, maybe I can get some to switch systems to mine. The design is not going to be: slightly better sensor, slightly better performance, or slightly better focus. What we’re shooting for here is to define something entirely new. 

Let’s talk about the focus system for a wildlife camera, for example. Sony has just added animal eye detect, but that doesn’t include birds. It doesn’t work with a lot of animals with different shaped heads. It doesn’t work with porpoises. You get the idea. But that’s the right direction. Indeed, I wouldn’t mind telling the camera I’m shooting birds and have it optimize for that (recognize beak, eyes, wings, etc.). 

I’m also doing one of two things, panning with the animal or letting the animal move through the frame. Either way, I want the focus system to recognize the subject via the motion. In a pan, the background is moving faster than the subject, so that ought to be able to be distinguished (e.g. never focus on the thing that’s moving faster, focus on the thing it looks like I’m panning with). If I’m letting the animal move through the frame, then I want just the opposite: don’t focus on the static stuff, find the subject motion and focus there. (In both cases, we need to talk about how the camera would decided to prioritize on where to focus on the subject, but that’s detail; I’m working on the bigger picture here. We also would need the camera to recognize when I’ve switched tactics, e.g. go from panning to stationary, which requires that the camera have motion detection).

Meanwhile, if the camera is finding the subject already, why not have a form of autocrop capability? How often am I cropping some sky from BIF shots? Answer: a lot. (And before people complain, you can always set the camera up to do the RAW+JPEG type of thing, e.g. FULL+AUTOCROP, with some sort of parameter on how the AUTOCROP is derived.)

Now wouldn’t it be nice if after I took a shot of an animal I could keyword the shot? One of the things I provide students on my workshops is a heirarchical keyword list of all the places/animals that they might be photographing. Load that list into Lightroom, and you can pick and add keywords really fast, but why does that have to wait until I get to Lightroom? Moreover, if I’m shooting with a guide, s/he’s helping me identify animals (and plants and other things) as I’m shooting, and I don’t want to have to remember all that until I can finally get my images into Lightroom.

So why can’t I load my list into my camera and as I review images, do a quick pick and choose (animal, mammal, cat, lion, done)? 

You might be asking “why not just add all this stuff to the camera already designed?” The problem with that is that we’re making a highly complex product even more complex. That’s okay if you add a way to get past the complexity.

For example, there are certain techniques that I use over and over again in wildlife shooting. To keep this simple, I’ll just mention freeze and flow. In freeze I want the camera set to stop all action (e.g. high shutter speed). In flow I’m going to try to pan with the subject and keep them sharp, but want the background to blur (e.g. slow shutter speed). Often times with these techniques there’s more to it than just shutter speed, so why can’t I just set the camera to my technique in one step? Heck, why can’t I just keep all those technique sets on my smartphone and blast them over the camera using SnapBridge? 

I don’t want to bog down too much and fully define a “wildlife camera” here, I’m just trying to play that little product management game I suggested at the beginning. So the question at this point is: if I defined a really good wildlife camera, would it provoke sales from my existing customers? I believe the answer to that question is yes.

Again, there’s another approach here, which is to give a more generic camera multiple “personalities”: sports, wildlife, BIF, portraits, street, landscape, etc. But that tends to minimize sales, believe it or not. As a seller of products, I really want you to buy multiples (e.g. both a landscape and a sports camera, which is kind of the D850/D6 dichotomy), not a single camera that does everything.. 

So what provoked me into playing this little game?

Well, I’ve been thinking about this product management problem for a long time now. Last week Sony took some sort of step in the direction that I’m suggesting when they took the bones of an RX-100 and came up with a vlogger’s camera in the ZV-1. So someone in Tokyo at least is playing the same game I’ve been thinking about. 

The problem, of course, is that you need to “go all the way” if you’re going to play this game. Sony did a lot of the easy work, but stopped at doing all the work. Perhaps they have a ZV-10 coming that’ll deal with all the elements that they didn’t get right in the first model, but I sort of doubt that. 

Upper management gets very nervous when you do this kind of outside-our-usual-box product management. The annals of Big Business are filled with missed opportunites because the upper management just couldn’t be convinced to make moves outside of what they’ve been doing (Kodak, anyone? Remember the Xerox Alto?). 

Here’s your homework: considering the eight bulleted items up at the top of this article, in your new job as the head of Company X’s camera group what newproduct do you define? What’s your (compelling) argument for making it? How are you going to convince upper management to let you continue?

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