Product Secrecy in the Camera Industry…To Apple it or not?

Recently, Vincent Laforet commented on RED’s camera versus the competition, where he suggested that camera companies should act more like Apple and say nothing about their upcoming products. He argues that by keeping product development secret, Apple can insure that their product is ready without having to meet announced deadlines.

I disagree; secrecy is bad for the buyer and not necessarily bad for the manufacturer. At best secrecy makes our lives harder; at worst it hurts our ability to make good decisions on purchases that can cost as much as a new car.

The important thing here is that the mid and high end cameras aren’t governed by the same market forces that govern most consumer electronics. From the hardware itself to the speed at which the competition can react to the lock-in from having large expensive secondary costs (lenses aren’t free and they’re damn important) cameras are a very different market.

…cameras and lenses, can cost as much as the down payment on a car or even the car itself. At those prices, prudent buyers plan their purchases…

Price is the largest reason secrecy hurts buyers. Consumer electronics, even devices like the iPhone, are often inexpensive enough to be purchased on a whim. Higher end cameras and lenses can cost as much as a down payment on a car or even the car itself. At those prices, prudent buyers are going to spend some time planning their purchases; even if they use their camera for their living—and no, most professional photographers aren’t swimming in vaults of cash like Scrooge McDuck.

Price aside, providing a road map doesn’t really hurt the manufacturers either.

There are big differences in how parts are sourced and what’s available on the market. Higher-end sensors (arguably the most important part), for example, are made by few companies and often the camera’s manufacturer themselves. Canon, Dalsa, Kodak, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony, and Sigma are about the only ones making sensors. Of those only Dalsa, Kodak, Sony and Panasonic sell to other companies.

Contrast that to consumer electronics, which are more like collections of commercially available parts in a unique package. The iPhone 4, for example, uses components from companies like Skyworks, Micron, Broadcom, Samsung, Cirrus Logic, Texas Instruments, and that’s just the start. Even Apple’s custom A4 processor is basically a licensed ARM Cortext-A8 (and that’s already appeared in another phone from Samsung). All of those companies sell anyone who wants to buy their goods. Moreover, the parts are already being produced in volume so lead times are short. In fact, with respect to the iPhone, the only thing that can’t be had by a competitor is the OS.

On the other hand, due to the custom nature of most camera components, lead times are very different. Custom silicon, ignoring the time it takes to design, can take months to tap out at production levels. If Canon were to announce they planned to ship a 34MP camera in the second half of this year, Nikon would be hard pressed to match it unless they already had something similar in the works.

There’s another factor that separates cameras from other consumer electronics, they aren’t just electronics. There have complex precision mechanical parts that make up the shutters and mirrors. Lenses are precisely built optics; they’re hard to design and involve intricate parts and tight tolerances. All of this means it takes more time to design the products and build them in quantities.

…the argument that secrecy produces better products, is bunk. Good engineering, design, and releasing the product when it’s ready is what produces better products…

Then there’s the argument that secrecy produces better products, which is largely bunk too. Good engineering, design, and releasing the product when it’s ready and no sooner is what produces better products. It’s clear that in some cases, I’m thinking about the EOS 1D Mark 4, where even being secretive doesn’t result in a product that’s as capable as it should be or its competitors are.

However, there’s another strategy, and it’s the one that I’d like to see all camera manufacturers adopt; be open about what you’re planning on doing and give us roadmaps.

Even if it’s vague, it gives us an idea what’s coming and we can plan our purchases around it. Yes, there can be problems with this if it’s done wrong. Red, for instance, found out what happens if you promise too much and can’t deliver on time.

However, even having a rough idea can help a lot. Something as simple as noting, “an EOS 1Ds will be released in the second half of 2010”, or that “a 14-24 f/2.8L is slated for release in Q2 or Q3 of 2010” can go a long way to making it easier for those of us struggling to position ourselves better. It’s not unprecedented either; Pentax has in the past released lens roadmaps showing what they were expecting to release.

The way I see it, there are a great many reasons that we want to see product roadmaps from the camera manufacturers and very few good reasons against providing them. So how about it guys?


Footnotes

  1. Dissambly of a iPhone 4 from iFixit, notice the number of parts in the first image.
  2. Dissambly of a EOS 5D Mark 2 part 1 and part 2 there are almost more screws in an EOS than total parts in an iPhone

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