The We're Not There Yet Problem

bythom trailingsweetleading

I've lived on the leading edge of technology most of my life now. That's a rough neighborhood to live in, as both small and big changes constantly impact you. 

The two other neighborhoods to live in are the sweet spot and the trailing edge. The trailing edge means you're buying and using what is about to become or already is obsolete (at least to the maker). That neighborhood can be really rough if you're not completely happy with what you've got. Don't live in the trailing edge if you at all ever covet something brand spanking new, or hope that something wrong with the product will be fixed.

The sweet spot, of course, is a broad area bounded by the leading edge on one side, and the trailing edge on the other. At times, the sweet spot is a huge area with plentiful choices. In times of radical change, it can seem like it's squeezed down to nothing.

All that is a long-winded way of getting to today's point. 

Apple used their developer conference in June to announce the beginning of a transition from Intel processors (x86) to Apple processors (Arm). Apple has been through processor transitions several times in the past (6502, 68000, PowerPC, Intel). They understand the disruption such transitions make, and have learned to try to minimize that. 

However, the need to pre-announce the actual transition—there are no Apple CPU Macs you can buy right now—introduces what I call the "We're Not There Yet" problem. Users begin to panic and some try to move out of the sweet spot—which right now is Intel Macs—sooner and faster than they probably should. They hold off purchases of current sweet spot items that are probably just fine for them in anticipation of the leading edge thing that's coming. 

To some degree, this is the problem that Canon and Nikon have with DSLRs versus mirrorless. There's no doubt that the future will be completely mirrorless at some point. As I've noted, there are cost and simplicity considerations that come into play that all the ILC makers will want to take advantage of. 

Broadly speaking, for interchangeable lens cameras (ILC) the trailing edge is film SLRs, the sweet spot is DSLRs, and the leading edge is mirrorless. That's more true for market leaders Canon and Nikon. Sony has already pushed their DSLR users into the trailing edge, hoping to become the leader in the future of ILC by getting to the leading edge first.

On the Nikon side, the D500, D780, D850, and D6 are exceptionally good cameras, and they take advantage of huge legacy worth of accumulated lenses and accessories. Sweet spot. 

The Nikon Z cameras hint at the full transition to come, but they're only steps into the leading edge, not fully in the door. I'm pretty sure that was a deliberate decision on Nikon's part. I've written before that the Z6 and Z7 were carefully positioned under the D780 and D850, not equal or above. And, of course, there's no full lens set yet, though Nikon is making good progress on that.

Canon DSLR users are little less in the sweet spot. The current 5D and 1DX models are very good cameras, but as many have noticed, they're lagging (Nikon/Sony) in the image sensor department. I'd also say that Canon has just only caught Nikon with autofocus performance, and only with the 1DX Mark III, so the sweet spot is not quite as sweet with Canon as with Nikon.

Canon's recent RF camera introductions (R5/R6) pretty much signal that the transition is full on in the red box world to the leading edge of mirrorless. Suddenly, Canon has everything but the pro sports camera on display in full frame mirrorless. Like Nikon, the lens set is not yet full, but also like Nikon, Canon is making good progress on that. 

I should note that even though Sony has a five year head start on scrapping DSLRs for mirrorless, the Sony lens set isn't quite full up, either. 

And this brings me to the headline: are we there yet, or are we not quite there yet? It makes a difference, and each of you is going to have a slightly different answer. That's the trouble with transitions: not everyone moves at the same time. 

For many of you, just sticking with your DSLR is probably the right choice. You're still living in the sweet spot, though the trailing edge neighborhood is creeping closer and closer to where you are. But the nice thing about living in the sweet spot is that you probably already have available most, if not all, the gear you need or will want. For you, it's probably cheaper to just stay in the DSLR sweet spot for the time being, even if you do need to upgrade your old D300 or D700 for something newer.

I noted earlier that I live on the leading edge. I started the sansmirror site back in 2011, long before most people realized that all the camera companies were headed that direction. Likewise, in most of my own shooting I'm now basically in the mirrorless realm, though not yet for sports (the very good Sony A9 notwithstanding). I'm not 100% happy with the mirrorless choices yet, but I'm sure I will be once the camera companies truly catch up to my needs. 

The thing about tech is that it never stops maturing and mutating. There's always going to be something new that does something new. I started writing with pen and paper, progressed to a Smith Corona typewriter by high school, graduated to an IBM Selectric typewriter in college, wrote my Master's Thesis on the first version of WordStar connected to a Selectric linked to my computer, and have continued to progress all the way up to what I think is the current best (Nisuswriter Pro on macOS, which is a much better Word than Word). It's looking like I'll be leaving the Intel processor behind soon, so I'll see what's next soon, too.

The same has been true with cameras. In terms of ILCs, I started by borrowing my mom's Nikomat FTN (yes, it was bought in Japan, not the US). I've been pretty much through everything Nikon has made at this point, but my four working cameras tend to be Z50, Z6, Z7, and D5 (and as soon as I master it, the D6 will replace that last one). So I'm out there mostly in the leading edge.

My point is that you don't have to be. You can stay in the sweet spot and wait until the sweet spot moves before you change. It's certainly cheaper to do that. 

When Apple makes announcements like the move to Apple Arm CPU/GPUs, and Canon makes so many RF mirrorless announcements (as Nikon is in the process of doing, the Z5 being just the first this fall), the proper thing to do is to note that the frontier line between sweet spot and leading edge may move in the not-too-distant future. You don't have to sell your house and move right away. But you should take note and start planning for what you'll do when the neighborhood you're in does change.

Most of you are not there yet. 

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