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Reader Inquiry: Small Cameras, Product Cycles, What’s Coming

Michael C writes:

Your writing on the site continues to amaze me in breadth of material and scope of insights. You have had a couple of great articles on the future of the camera HW world. I think you may be correct about the Micro 4/3 world.

I have been waiting patiently for progress in the past year and see few signs of anything compelling. As you muse about the migration to APS-C format, what timetable do you think we see for these transitions and new product cycles. I ask because I am concerned about buying a Sigma DP2 Merrill and and Ricoh GR in the face of such change. Fuji's discounting has me wondering if the other makers are close behind. When is the next major "new product news" cycle in the industry?

If I am safe for a year, then I will queue up my DP2M and Ricoh orders now for my better half to bring to me here in Switzerland when she visits from San Francisco in September. I appreciate any word or two you may have on the topic of timing for new product intro cycles.

DIGLLOYD: Given the tough financial numbers I expect that camera manufacturers will do exactly the wrong thing: exercise caution, hence I don’t expect much to appear this fall, but I hope to be totally wrong on that point.

But the well-funded companies looking to take market share will roll out new products aggressively, e.g. I expect Sony to do this (or at least announce a 2014 lineup). Those that act conservatively are bound to suffer in this wheezing market, possibly to the point of becoming irrelevant.

The best strategy right now for taking a leadership position is to roll out a 'ridiculous' breakthrough 'halo' product, e.g. a 100 megapixel full-frame compact with a 'perfect' lens mated to the sensor. Maybe even a 40 X 30 sensor or some such thing. Raw only, minimal feature set, maximal usability, perfect lens, 4MP EVF and so on. Get the important stuff right and drop the “App Crap”. How about 4K time lapse? Change the same-old-same-old approach and charge for it, since Leica is charging a fortune for mediocrity! Such halo products attract users to a brand. Nikon, Canon, Sony, even Sigma and Ricoh could deliver something like this, but all of them seem to too conservative to contemplate such a big hairy audacious goal (as far as I can tell!).

Sony rumblings suggest that it is moving aggressively forward and their NEX line is stale and has crummy ergonomics (NEX-7 is half-right, go buy a Ricoh GR and figure out the combo, Sony). With a refresh (can Sony figure out usability?) and a possible full-frame version if Sony plays its cards right, then things could get interesting, but this might be 2014 for availability.

As well, the stagnation in DSLRs at the ~24 megapixel range makes no sense for total image quality, and this is my hesitation about the Sony A99: where is it going and give me 60+ megapixels and now I’m taking a hard look. Otherwise, why bother moving from Nikon which has a far superior lens line option? And so far I have not seen Ricoh-level recognition from Sony of what constitutes both quality and usability in a camera.

As for Canon, they either have something really good in the works, or are asleep at the switch. I’m betting on the former. The Canon 5D Mark III is a decent enough camera, but what a damned bore after all these years.

Sigma has potential with the Foveon sensor in the Sigma DP Merrill series, but until and unless they get serious about their lame software and add an EVF option and 5X faster speed and 3X better battery life, the DP Merrills remain a niche product (which I like a lot, but only for some uses). Maybe Ricoh/Pentax and Sigma should cooperate as they are both 3rd-tier players.

The time is ripe for a 60+ megapixel full-frame compact camera, oversampling being a lovely thing for image quality. The per-pixel sensor quality is already there for over 100 megapixels (Sony RX100), it’s just a technical question of producing the sensor, and Sony has some of the best technology in the business at present. In a down-and-out market, anything like this could ignite tremendous excitement and pull users to the brand. The right move is 36 megapixels in APS-C and 80 megapixels in full-frame, in a Ricoh GR style compact utilizing a purpose-built lens.

Olympus is rumored to have a new Micro Four Thirds SLR body for M4/3 this fall, but I've heard nothing recently. Sony investment is the only thing keeping them relevant, but it’s unclear to me if Sony’s strategy includes the Micro Four Thirds platform, which without aggressive investment in Ricoh GR style hyper-friendly-high-quality imagery, has no relevance that I can see relative to the stunning advances in APS-C.

The real issue? This market needs to mature not just in megapixels (= picture quality via oversampling plus resolution plus current sensor tech), but mainly in returning to usability as a key design goal, and improving the success rate by using the current technologies wisely and well to reduce the shooting impediments (with DSLRs at the least fix the stupid irritants, e.g., Live View that is not mangled on the D800, along with a high-res EVF option in addition to the optical viewfinder). Where is the pride in truly well considered design? Mediocrity is a bore.

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