Ecosystems versus Alliances

"You're only as good as your weakest link in the ecosystem." —Jimmy Iovine

I found several instances of people posting comments recently about the state of cameras similar to the following: "you have to be in an alliance or you'll die." 

Not at all true. 

An alliance is merely corporate cooperation that attempts to create a viable ecosystem which the individual companies don't think they can do by themselves. As with most multi-corporation entities, that generally isn't the most efficient way to do something. Ecosystems can often be more easily created and flourish when produced by a single company (witness Apple). Indeed, that often is the best way, as there is only one chef in the main kitchen dictating the overall cuisine.

Now, if you look up the word ecosystem in the dictionary—or use DuckDuckGo, or an unnamed search engine that likes to invade your privacy while you search the Internet—you'll find the long existing definition, which is basically "a community of organisms and how their relationship to the environment around them works."

In the high tech world, we took that nature-driven term and bastardized it to mean "all the additional products and services that support a core product (or product line)." The first time I recall using the word ecosystem with tech was when I wrote about the Apple II and the world of products that surrounded it (disclosure: I was involved with and produced some of those products). 

At Osborne Computer, my whole domain was basically growing the ecosystem: I managed the hardware products, the software (BIOS, OS, applications), the third-party software program, all documentation, the magazine, the user group relationships, and worked with the training department. My goal was very simple: to make the sum of the parts bigger than the sum of the parts. 

What's that mean? 

Well, if you just sell a product, you're defined only by how good the product is. Make a great product and you'll have better sales than if you make a fair or poor product, all else equal. But if you make the great product the center of solving the widest possible range of user needs and help grow other products around it to hit all specialties and possibilities, you'll sell more. 

Apple has long been the master of ecosystem. They had virtually no control or influence on it with the Apple II, but the Macintosh was where they started to master the ecosystem. My friend Guy Kawasaki was one of Apple's first "evangelists," and his role was very much like mine was at Osborne (other than the internal bits of product and software management): expand the system around the main product to make a big and vibrant ecosystem that supported it.

The Japanese camera companies all have two strikes against them when it comes to ecosystems, and both tend to be defined by cultural tendencies. First, there's a long history of "proprietary" in Japan consumer electronics. It's the reason why they're not leaders in personal computers, for example, as the Windows ecosystem in particular basically defeated all the Japanese proprietary ones. It was easy to enforce proprietary within Japan, particularly because of the keyboard/language issues, but none of that played well outside Japan. And ultimately, the Japanese needed to integrate their own computer needs with the rest of the world. Voila, dead proprietary computer systems.

The second is the "coopetition" aspect of Japanese culture. It's Japan against the world most of the time. The Japanese have a tendency to pair up with themselves rather than in global alliances. (While it's interesting that Leica is the center of the L-mount alliance, the Germans long ago learned to act like and work with Japanese companies after the Japanese companies took their optical market away. Leica and Zeiss, to a large degree, act Japanese when in Japan.) 

Which brings me to this: American companies often just look like misbehaving bullies when they come into the Japanese market looking for cooperation and/or sales. That doesn't go down well at all. Adobe came into Japan like gangbusters with expensive Photoshop licenses when the Japanese needed software to go with the early digital scanners that were being produced, dictating terms that, to this day, are still disliked and remembered negatively by several key photography-related companies. 

Why's that important?

Because a camera is just one component at the center of a photography ecosystem. If you want to sell lots of cameras, you'd better have a thriving ecosystem supporting it. For interchangeable lens cameras that means lenses, of course. But it also means flashes, video recorders, batteries, remotes, grips, protective covers/sleeves/bags, mounting gear, and much more. 

You may recognize a lot of that. For instance, Canon and Nikon both make lenses, flashes, batteries options, remotes, grips, and even some of the other stuff from time to time for their proprietary systems. So they kind of have an ecosystem they control by themselves. Not that they do a good job of that. Nikon, for example, is notorious for not having accessories in stock, overpricing them, and then doing completely stupid things like making an MB grip for the Z7 that doesn't have user controls on it: it's just a battery holder that bolts to the bottom of the camera.

We also sometimes we get silly decisions that have a wide, negative impact with customers trying to live in the ecosystem. The (as yet unverified) story behind CFast is that Canon wanted something different than what appeared to be a growing Sony/Nikon alliance in XQD. The original parties to XQD were SanDisk, Sony, and Nikon. Notice which company isn't in that group? 

But there's a more important part of a photography ecosystem that's currently broken, and that's in part because those Japanese cultural tendencies are now positioned against those brash Western companies. 

Photography today has a strong workflow that isn't controlled (or even mastered) by the Japanese. This was one of the things pioneered by Silicon Valley and driven by the iPhone. Ironically, that was all triggered by Phillipe Kahn's use of a Japanese cell phone to send immediate photos to others in the valley of the birth of his daughter back in the late 90's. 

Meanwhile, camera companies seem to have never heard of card readers (while providing terrible throughput when using the camera as a card reader), they barely give lip service to ingest programs, they have terrible connectivity issues because they use old parts and have very little decent software, they don't play well with the Internet, and the cloud may be something that they think they understand and have tried to do (e.g. Nikon Image Space), but really don't get at all. 

In essence, the Japanese companies are pretty good at mastering the part of the ecosystem that you hold in your hand (camera, lens, flash). Beyond that? They're not doing the things that are necessary to make a complete ecosystem thrive. And that's particularly true at the global level. 

Of course, even within that hardware bundle that's in your hands there are now signs of problems. It's a dirty secret that a lot of the internals of BIONZ, DIGIC, and EXPEED are licensed from others.  But consider this: Apple is now running six 64-bit cores and matching GPU at about 2.5Ghz, along with running their imaging routines in hardware. By contrast, Nikon is running two 32-bit (and older design) cores at a slower clock speed in EXPEED. 

So even within the part of the ecosystem that the Japanese companies control, they're falling dangerously behind. Apple is able to run their real-time HDR, stitching, and 3D light-shaping effects because they're running state of the art electronics inside. The camera companies will have a difficult time matching that without seriously upping their game when it comes to the smarts inside the camera.

So, does an alliance of three companies (e.g. the L-mount alliance) mean that the two big duopolists (Canon/Nikon) will die? No. It's basically "more of the same" in the Japanese camera world as far as I can see. 

Do Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, or Sony each have a person in charge of building a growing, thriving, abundant ecosystem (and able to influence product decisions internally)? Nope. To a large degree, that's why the overall camera market ecosystem is still contracting. 

When I made my Communicating, Programmable, Modular camera proposal over ten years ago, all elements of that were targeted to expose and allow the creation and expansion of a vibrant ecosystem. It isn't just lenses that define how healthy an ecosystem is. If it were, the m4/3 ecosystem would be dominating the mirrorless world and growing like weeds.

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