Good m4/3 News, Bad m4/3 News

In a strange morning for m4/3, Olympus retreated while Panasonic advanced.

Let's take the positive news first. Panasonic introduced the G100 (G110 in some areas of the world), an m4/3 camera that's targeted towards vloggers. As with Sony and the ZV-1, it seems that Panasonic targeted price before features. 

bythom panasonic g100

The key parameters from a vlogging standpoint are 4K/30P and 24P recording, for up to 10 minutes, an optional (wired) handgrip/remote, and improved direction mic system designed by Nokia. 

At US$799, the G100 basically slots in as a direct competitor to the ZV-1. One key difference, though, is that the G100 has an m4/3 lens mount, meaning wider  and more useful lenses can be mounted. Image stabilization is not on-sensor, but a combination of electronic (cropping) IS with lens-based IS.

Unfortunately, 4K is a crop on the G100, and an even bigger crop if you invoke the electronic IS at its highest mode. With IS off, the 4K crop is 1.26x. With it on, it ranges from 1.37x to 1.79x. In 1080P, there's no crop with IS off, a 1.09x to 1.43x crop with electronic IS on. While you can mount wider lenses on the G100, not all of those really wide lenses have IS, so there's no bullseye scored by engineers with IS, for sure. 

As a still camera, there's a different limitation: the mechanical shutter is single curtain, and limited to 1/500 and 1/50 flash sync. Want to go above that? You'll be in a fully electronic shutter, which has some rolling shutter issues. 

Overall, the G100 is an interesting addition to the m4/3 field, and to vlogging cameras in general. Not perfect, but also something that will appeal to some. 

Unfortunately, on the same day the G100 announcement went live, we also got not-so-good m4/3 news: Olympus has started the process of divesting the Imaging business (cameras and lenses) from the corporate parent. Actually, it's more than a divestment, it appears. It's an outright fire sale. Specifically, Olympus a new company will be created and managed by JIP (Japan Industrial Partners, a private equity firm who previously bought the VAIO computer business from Sony). JIP has been acquiring insolvent businesses in Japan since 2002, including one from Olympus before, Olympus mobile phone business. 

But JIP is not a large pocket investor, it's a small (US$150m) equity investment partner. In particular, they specialize in what they call "curve out" projects. Basically this is code for "take over a business while stripping out any non-performing aspects." It's a way of getting around Japan's employee laws, among other things. What's likely to be left of Olympus Imaging if the deal goes through is something smaller than before. To quote the Olympus disclosure agreement: "structure may become more compact, efficient and agile..."  

This pretty much puts an end to all the disinformation that Olympus spread over the past five years about the Imaging group. The R&D for Imaging goes to the new corporation; there's no mention of Olympus Medical getting any exclusive access to any Imaging R&D in the future. I've been saying that Olympus' statements about Imaging R&D being key to Medical advances was hogwash for some time now. Moreover, Olympus' constant optimism ("we'll stop the losses next year"; see Claims to Remember) is also proven wrong, once again ("...despite all such efforts...recorded losses for 3 consecutive fiscal years"). 

Note that this isn't a done deal, though. The press announcement is a memorandum of understanding, which has been made basically because of Olympus' responsibilities to investors  under Japanese business law (you must disclose significant changes that might impact future financial results). Olympus and JIP are hoping to sign a definitive agreement by September 30th, and to close the transaction by the end of the year. However, that means that details haven't been worked out. Olympus may retain some ownership in the new venture (Sony retained 5% of the VAIO spinout), or it may have to pony up some additional cash resources. Both those things are unknowns at this point.

In the short term, it's business as usual. Olympus continues to sell and support cameras worldwide. However, that now comes with an asterisk, as it's unclear what happens when the transaction closes. As many know, the Sony VAIO computers disappeared from many markets after JIP took over. I wouldn't be surprised if JIP concentrated on where Olympus has done decently (e.g. Japan and some parts of Asia). 

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