In a recent New Yorker column, tech-industry legend Om Malik opined how the new Apple iPhone 7 “changed the camera industry forever.” He’s a little late to the party if he thinks camera companies are just now realizing the threat of the iPhone.
Like many Silicon Valley tech industry pundits, Malik displays the type of flawed hindsight favoring products and technology over market reality. He claims, “Camera companies, like traditional phone manufacturers, dismissed the iPhone as a toy when it launched, in 2007. Nokia thought that the iPhone used inferior technology; the camera makers thought that it took lousy pictures. Neither thought that they had anything to worry about.”
It’s true most camera makers didn’t take smartphone photography seriously in the mid-2000s. There was no reason to; the iPhone wasn’t dismissed as a toy as much as it was recognized as not being ready for primetime. The 2007-era iPhone was hardly a picture-taking dynamo, with a 2MP sensor and no photo apps. The app store wouldn’t come until iOS 2.
So, how were the camera companies going to respond? By getting into the phone business?
Malik notes, “The iPhone didn’t really start to cannibalize the camera business until the iPhone 4 came out, in 2010. That year, Instagram was born and a 122 million digital cameras were sold—a record, according to the Camera and Imaging Products Association, a Japanese camera makers’ trade organization. By 2015, however, that number had shrunk to about thirty-five million.”
This is all true, and there’s no doubt the iPhone played a big part in that. What Malik overlooks, with his fascination with Japanese camera unit sales, is the nature of popular photography has changed. The amount of photos captured has skyrocketed, not due to smartphones, but to social networks. Before social networks, sharing a photo from either a digicam or a flip-phone was a cumbersome affair. You had to seriously want to get that photo online, and that was primarily to make a print.
Today, amazing screen quality and social sharing have done a lot to not only diminish printing, but also to encourage photographing every day events. Photography is now frictionless. Malik acknowledges this, at one point: “The better the phone camera became, the more photos we started to snap and share. There are now nearly a billion smartphones worldwide capturing selfies, birthday smiles, breakfast sandwiches, Tuscan villages, and cats. In the past, such photos were taken by a point-and-shoot camera.” (I disagree, however, that the same volume of photos would be taken with a point-and-shoot camera.)
Malik then goes into a soliloquy about how the advanced features of the iPhone 7 Plus, its new advanced processing chips, dual lenses and iOS 10 will reduce the demand for standalone cameras, which he referred to “these monsters.” He cites a few serious photographers who will be intrigued by the addition of DNG files and improved shooting modes, include a faux “bokeh” effect.
He then concludes this is “terrible news for companies making compact cameras”, adding the iPhone 7 Plus “drives a stake through the heart of these mass-market devices.”
This is true, also, but Malik is seriously late to the party. The major camera brands have moved away years ago from depending on compact camera sales, instead focusing on system cameras with capabilities beyond any smartphone. I have yet, for example, seen a workable iPhone setup for using studio flash, as a pro would use it.
Further, the camera market itself has expanded and adapted to the smartphone intrusion. Standalone cameras now can wireless “talk” to smartphones, adding their unique picture-taking capabilities to the Internet. Whole new classes of adventure cameras – like the GoPro – have sprouted up to create new photo and video content possibilities. Even add-on devices, like the DxO One camera, adds capability beyond what an iPhone can do.
Drones have also expanded the photographic world. There’s no question DJI is as much of a camera company as Nikon is.
The camera market is expanding, just not in the areas Malik considers to be the “camera industry.” Sure, the Japanese brands like Canon and Nikon are under pressure, but they will adapt as they always have. Malik concludes his screed by saying the “camera companies are doomed.” If they don’t adapt, this is probably true. But if history is any guide – and having watched these companies make the jump from film platforms to digital in the first place – there’s no doubt they have a future. Maybe this future won’t be dominated by Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Fujifilm, etc., but that’s where innovation comes into play, and the game for the Japanese manufacturers is far from over.
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