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Vendor Lock-In FAIL

April 8, 2010

If Vinod Khosla recommends [your book], then I’m not interested.
— Curt Monash

Cheetah, Namibia. Photo by David Siegel

An Open Letter to Canon and Nikon

I’m a Canon photographer, but what I’m about to say also applies to Nikon, although more generally. I have purchased 8 Canon bodies in the past five years, and I can’t count how many lenses. At the moment, I’m shooting a Canon 5D2, which I can’t wait to trade for a full-frame camera that can actually autofocus. Canon and Nikon are in a never-ending arms race to dominate the 35mm and sub-35mm SLR markets. Serious photographers who own Canon bodies have to settle for Canon lenses. Why? Not because they are the best, although many of them are excellent and a few are remarkable, but because they are the only high-end lenses Canon bodies can autofocus. Canon keeps this interface between body and lens proprietary, to keep Canon owners buying more Canon lenses and prevent them from using third-party lenses. A company like Sigma, which makes lower quality lenses, can get a license from Canon, because as Sigma sells more lenses, Canon sells more bodies. But Zeiss makes better lenses than Canon does, and Canon won’t license the autofocus codes to Zeiss at any price, because Canon executives know that many of their customers would switch and buy Zeiss lenses and they would sell fewer Canon lenses. The same goes for Nikon. And it’s true – we would.

Fear. Uncertainty. Doubt. Corporate culture of closedness. Hubris. Arrogance. Does that remind you of any companies?

  • Toyota (FAIL)
  • Microsoft (FAIL)
  • Xerox (FAIL)
  • Kodak (FAIL)
  • Motorola (FAIL)
  • UPS (SURVIVING)
  • Oracle (HANGING IN THERE)
  • Apple (RIDING HIGH AT THE MOMENT (but read this))

I’m not just talking about cameras, I’m talking about your company. But now I’ll continue talking about cameras.

EOS 5D Mark II

Who’s in third place in the digital SLR market? It’s probably Olympus, which also has a proprietary lens mount and doesn’t license its autofocus capability. But there’s a newcomer on the high-end SLR scene, and it’s Sony, who bought the Pentax/Konica lines and are now making a go of it. To help bring their new Alpha line to the attention of serious photographers, they turned to Zeiss (who had a previous relationship with Pentax/Konica), and they offer Zeiss licensed lenses for their new camera. Very few pros are taking Sony seriously, because they haven’t caught up to Canon and Nikon, and because they have invested too much money in their lenses to change bodies now. So while Sony is making a good effort, it probably won’t be enough to become a serious competitor, even to Olympus. Could they have done it differently?

Yes. A few years ago, Olympus and Panasonic got together and announced an open standard for compact non-SLR cameras called Micro Four Thirds. It’s based on a smaller sensor than full-frame, but it gives us a middle ground between compact cameras and SLRs. Announced in 2008, this open standard already has 12% market share. Numerous manufacturers are coming on board and announcing new lenses. And, best of all, the lenses autofocus on all the camera bodies, because the communication standard is open and available to anyone who pays the small membership price for joining the consortium. This was more than a good idea – the standard has enabled Micro Four Thirds to become a serious category of cameras that didn’t exist before and were made possible only by advances in digital photography. (It’s not a completely open standard, Olympus and Panasonic govern it together, but my understanding is that any company that wants to make products to the standard can do so – Leica and Sigma have already shipped four-thirds products.) This is a system for the 21st century. It could even be that with better sensors and autofocus, this standard will start to suck photographers out of the low end of the SLR market.

Because full-frame sensors really are better, pro and prosumer photographers like me are waiting for an open system for full-frame cameras, and it seems we should not be holding our breath. While Nikon and Canon will both say they need to keep their proprietary interfaces to make sure the autofocus is world-class, they are both living in an old-world mentality. The future is open. Some day, you’ll be able to put a Canon lens right on a Nikon body and it will work fine. And you’ll be able to put a Zeiss lens on and it will work even better. But that day is far off. It will only come when the two companies finally realize the mistake they are making with their arms race now and start to talk openly about a better long-term solution. Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, Samsung, and others could do it separately, but I think at least one of Canon or Nikon would have to get on board to give it momentum. To be sure, these cameras are going to have a tremendous number of requirements, from 10-frame-per-second sports photography to high-end fashion photography to HD moviemaking, but by the middle of this century, we’ll see a common standard emerge. I hope these companies see the wisdom of doing it sooner rather than later.

Canon is particularly bad at acknowledging its faults and shortcomings. It’s too bad. If they would just open their existing platform, so that innovators could write new firmware, then many of their lenses would become sharper practically overnight, because the company fails to provide the advances we photographers need on a timely basis. Instead of innovation, we are stuck with Canon updates, which usually address the problems a year or two after everyone complains enough. Even today, Canon completely fails to acknowledge the optic phenomenon of focus shift, which they should a) explain clearly to customers and b) provide a fix for in firmware. The company does neither (note to Canon – if you would like help explaining focus shift, contact me).

Photographers invest a lot in lenses. They don’t want things to change that often. But we shouldn’t have to live out the 21st century choosing between Nikon and Canon and leaving Zeiss out of the picture. We, the customers, should advocate for a common standard, one that can be back-ward compatible using adaptors but one that eventually takes us into a new, open century with a new attitude toward the customer. The attitude is called pull, and you can read about it in my book by the same name.

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