Digital Camera Chronicles
40 -- The demise of companies who didn't get digital
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
Several years ago, when film still ruled and even "experts" mocked out contention that photography would soon be all digital, I wrote a column in this spot entitled "Horseless carriages - filmless camera." In it I compared the digital cameras of the day with the "horseless carriages" at the beginning of the 20th century. Early automobiles had, in fact, looked just like horse carriages with a combustion engine grafted on. That didn't work very well because while a horse-drawn buggy and an automobile both get you from here to there, they are fundamentally different things. I concluded:
"The current state of affairs with digital cameras is amazingly reminiscent of those early horseless carriages. They are filmless cameras more so than digital cameras. Much like automotive pioneers made do with an earlier technology as a vessel for their new invention, digital camera pioneers make do with the bodies and conventions of film cameras. Just like a crude engine replaced the horse in a horseless carriage, a CCD and related electronics replace the film in a filmless camera. When you take a look at the majority of the digital cameras on the market today, most are virtually indistinguishable from film cameras. I find that very strange and very short-sighted."
Looks like we were right in two areas: First, digital replaced film much sooner than almost anyone expected. At this point, film is in free fall. And second, those who didn't realize that digital cameras were totally different from film cameras and adopted accordingly have fallen on hard times. How hard? Consider that a company with no less first rate photographic pedigree as Konica Minolta called in quits in January of 2006.
On January 19, 2006, Konica Minolta announced it was calling it quits. They transferred their digital SLR camera business to Sony so that existing customers may have a chance to continue using their investment in the Maxxum/Dynaax lens mount system. As for compact digital cameras, those will be gone for good. Konica Minolta will continue making color film and color paper, but will stop that in March of 2007 as well. How can a company like Konica Minolta, whose photographic past goes all the way back to 1903 and who is the worldwide number 3 in film and photo paper call it quits at a time where digital imaging is exploding? I mean, who can't remember the "From the minds of Minolta" TV commercials? What serious photographer didn't at least note the continuous stream of innovation in Minolta cameras and the quality and great value in Konica SLRs? And in 1962 it was a Minolta made camera that astronaut John Glenn had on his historic space flight onboard the Mercury Friendship 7 spacecraft.
So why Konica Minolta? It was because they fell into the horseless carriage trap. They did not realize that digital cameras were a totally different animal from film cameras. So while they made some very nice digital cameras, I don't think they ever thought things through and came to a realistic assessment on what it takes to be a manufacturer of digital cameras. Konica Minolta's goodbye includes the following statement: "However, in today's era of digital cameras, where image sensor technology such as CCD is indispensable, it became difficult to timely provide competitive products even with our top optical, mechanical and electronics technologies."
In essence, like many others, Minolta did not take Moore's law into consideration, the one that says that computer processing power will double every 18 months. In the film era it was all about optics and precision mechanics, and perhaps a bit of electronics. In the digital era, it's all about electronics. If you're not on top of the game with the latest CCDs, the latest special dedicated processors and specialized circuitry you simply can't be in the digital camera business. Within just a few years we've gone from expensive sub-megapixel cameras to inexpensive consumer cameras with 7 megapixel and more. And it's not just the resolution of the imager. It's also processing speed and a vast amount of complex electronics that give the big guns the competitive advantage. Or take LCDs where we've gone from dinky tiny displays that washed out in sunlight to large outdoor readable high resolution color displays in less than seven years. Those who don't truly understand the difference between film and digital cameras simply didn't get it. And as a result, they were neither prepared for the very rapid progress in digital camera electronics, nor qualified to develop and handle the massive R&D and manufacturing investments required.
I must admit, I'll greatly miss Konica Minolta. Not only did I grow up with Konica SLRs, I also developed a fondness for Minolta digital cameras and have been using them for years. I took a Minolta with me on my latest trip to Japan, and whenever I need a handy long-zoom camera I take along my DiMAGE Z5 with its marvelous 10X optical zoom. So good-bye Konia Minolta. We'll miss you.
What does all of this mean to the rest of the digital camera makers? Are we headed for a time when all digital cameras come from three or four gigantic multinationals that license optics from long forgotten German companies, crank out new electronics at record pace, and dominate the distribution channels? That may well happen. Here at the Digital Camera editorial offices we often lament the fact that by the time a new issue hits the newsstands and bookstores, half the cameras we review have already been replaced. Sometimes it seems the lifecycle of new digital cameras is less than three months, and we don't see that pace slowing anytime soon. Yet, I wouldn't be surprised if in the not too distant future we'll have the Big Three of digital cameras: Sony, Canon and either Kodak or HP.