How Do You Know When Your System is Discontinued?

We have three mirrorless camera players who seem to have gone inert:

  • Pentax Q — Last updated August 2014
  • Samsung NX — Last updated February 2015
  • Nikon 1 — Last updated April 2015

Rumors of new mirrorless products in these lines have basically dried up much like the Savute Channel in Botswana. 

Meanwhile, Canon is full of EOS M rumors, Fujifilm is clearly active, Olympus and Panasonic are about to introduce new mirrorless products, and Sony seems only in a minor delay due to the earthquake. Even Sigma has managed to quietly ship the sd Quattro while the three players listed up front have been silent. 

At this point it seems clear that Samsung has thrown in the towel. They aren’t exhibiting at Photokina, and even big dealers like B&H only list one NX camera still available (the NX3000 with kit lens at US$299, obviously a closeout price). Rumors flew fast and furious last year about what was going on, with the most interesting of these being that Samsung stepped back due to a potential intellectual property problem. I find that a little difficult to believe, as IP rights hasn’t stopped Samsung from stepping on toes before. Still, one has to wonder whether it all became a “sum of all problems” decision for Samsung with no end to any of those problems in sight. 

Meanwhile, Pentax’s Q system was apparently deemed a disappointment to Pentax itself way back in 2012. With a compact camera-sized sensor of only 12mp, the Q was—using the previous analogy I used with Olympus and 4/3 when it appeared—really only bringing a pea shooter to a gun fight. Yes, the Q is small and has remarkably good enthusiast controls, but it just never managed to gain much of a following outside of Japan, and even in Japan it was sold mostly on size and price. 

Like many things Pentax, here it is five years after the Q’s first appearance and, despite several updates, it still seems behind the times. With the camera market collapsing as it has been, being behind the times with products just doesn’t provide any product momentum at all, and the Q’s momentum is basically that of sea-going vessel locked down on a trailer and parked in Denver. 

Not that Nikon did much better. Like Pentax, Nikon seemingly attacked the small-as-a-compact-camera side for its mirrorless models, only unlike Pentax, Nikon priced theirs higher than DSLRs. I wrote that this was a mistake the day the J1/V1 were announced, and I don’t think anything has proved me wrong since. The Nikon 1 models are overpriced for what they do, under-equipped in the ergonomics for serious work, and suffer from a lens set that’s decidedly bi-polar (kit lenses abound, but the only other lenses available are an odd lot of very expensive high-end ones). 

None of these systems managed to gain substantive market share in the flat sales of the mirrorless market in recent years. Nikon at one time—during heavy discounting to drain inventory—managed to break the 10% market share for awhile, but all of these systems are really single-digit market share head scratchers. As in “what were they thinking?” 

I’ll answer that question this way (yes, the snarky Thom is back):

  • Samsung was thinking they could blindly copy Sony (NX versus NEX) and win. But they didn’t expect to be spending so much R&D money in a market that was about to collapse.
  • Pentax didn’t really pay much attention to what the world actually wanted and produced a miniature DSLR that only produced consumer-camera results.
  • Nikon got cocky and arrogant and thought they could sell consumer-oriented ILCs at higher-than-consumer DSLR prices. 

 So let’s get back to the question of the day: how do we know these systems are dead? 

First, there’s the fact that none of these systems are iterating while the other mirrorless and DSLRs still seem to be on very regular schedules. Still, only the Pentax Q is fully outside the window of expected iteration at the moment, though the others are getting close. Note though that the iteration cycles for all these systems I mention suddenly changed from regular to not-at-all, a typical sign of at least rethinking what should be done, if not dropping them entirely.

Samsung’s the most curious of the lot. Right up through the very excellent NX1 Samsung seemed to be pushing the envelope in virtually every area, and was becoming a very solid camera company. Their equivalent lenses were almost all better than Sony’s, their imaging sensors not only caught up to Sony Exmor, but in some ways passed them, and the ergonomics were always good and getting better with each model. And then “poof” and ads disappeared, no new models came, and virtually no word came out of Samsung about what was going on. The silent treatment like that is almost always a sign that they’ve moved on. 

To a large degree, Samsung’s real camera competitor is Apple. Apple’s now moving into multi sensor smartphones, and Samsung is going to have to match that to stay competitive. It’s likely that R&D budgets really tripped Samsung up in the long run: spending more and more on ILC sensor development in a collapsing market versus having to spend more to keep up with Apple,, in the smartphone market probably provoked a management decision at some point. Dedicated cameras never made money for Samsung. Someone finally wised up and realized that this might continue for a long time, if not forever. 

Personally, I believe the Samsung NX system is now dead. I don’t expect any additional products to appear. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, but all the signs point to a complete shutdown of NX. 

Pentax is likely still in the game, but one wonders what game that is and how they’ll play it. Most likely scenario: the Q morphs a third time and changes sensor size again. That would change the size of the body a bit, and it will probably change the lens mount and certainly forces new lenses to appear. But given Pentax’s “just keep iterating, even if we’re slowest to market” mantra, that seems to make a 1” sensor Q-type product something that’s very likely. But it won’t be exactly a Q, will it? So the Q as we know it is probably dead.

Moreover, the large plethora and choice of 1” compact cameras now (Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony) makes a 1” ILC something that doesn’t really have any traction, either, so Pentax would once again be in the too-little-too-late category if they switch Q to 1”. 

Nikon themselves have proven that point with their DL series, which just on lens alone beats any of the Nikon 1 model kits. Indeed, buying a DL18-50 f/1.8-2.8, a DL24-85 f/1.8-2.8, and a DL24-500mm f/2.8-5.6 together is arguably a better choice than buying a Nikon J5 with a 6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6, 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6, and 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6. You end up with one to two stops advantage just at the lens through much of the range, you have more range, you have an EVF where you need it (telephoto), and you really aren’t taking up all that much more room than you do with individual lenses. 

Which brings me to why the Nikon 1 line has to change or it is dead. The DLs—whenever they actually appear—are better than any current Nikon 1 specification in virtually every way. Ergonomically they’re better. They support Nikon’s regular CLS flash, not use proprietary-to-Nikon-1-flash. They’re priced more reasonably for what they are (and again, they’re better than the Nikon 1 models, virtually all of which have been overpriced for what they are). They’re SnapBridge compatible out of the box. Plus as noted those lens specs beat the basic Nikon 1 lens set. 

All of which means that to continue as a series, the Nikon 1 would have to: improve ergonomics, support CLS, support SnapBridge, get faster lenses, and a host of other changes just to keep up with the DLs. Oh, and the prices would have to come down. Not. Going. To. Happen.

Like Pentax and the Q, I’d guess that the only real move that could sustain the Nikon 1 lineup is a sensor switch. The CX mount can support nearly an APS-C lens imaging circle. Nearly. So something between 1.7x and 2x crop factor seems possible (currently it’s 2.7x). Still, I don’t see how this “saves” the Nikon 1, whatever we call the sensor switch version. Basically we get to something akin to m4/3 in sensor, but we once again require a complete new lens set, something Nikon has proven poor at providing for anything other than FX cameras. Moreover, a bigger sensor means bigger lenses, so the original Nikon 1 advantage of small size goes away, plus we’re now more closely competing with the DX DSLRs. 

As I predicted several years ago what we have are a lot of companies trying to build line extensions and multiple models into a smaller and smaller space. Right now that space is 1” (2.7x) to full frame (1x). That’s really just three stops apart. Is there really enough design space to put four product lines into three stops? I don’t think so. That won’t stop some camera makers from trying. Indeed, the situation we have today is 1” (2.7x), m4/3 (2x), APS (1.5x or 1.6x) and full frame (1x), plus a small assortment making medium format about another stop further up. 

Thing is, sensor size = price. A 1” sensor is ridiculously cheaper than a full frame sensor, and even if you can further reduce full frame sensor prices, the 1” sensor gets even cheaper, all else equal. Thus, the volume customer—read: consumer—is likely to always be found buying cameras with smaller sensors, and every camera company wants volume (and especially Nikon, whose #2 market share is currently slipping). 

So what happens is that—even though the Pentax Q and Nikon 1 seem currently doomed—both companies don’t want them to die. Instead, they want to reposition them. 

Thus, my current belief is this: Samsung NX is dead and gone. Pentax Q and Nikon 1 are dead as we know them, but both have some likelihood of morphing into something else, most likely growing a sensor size along the way. Just don’t expect a beautiful butterfly to emerge from the cocoon. More like a larger worm. 

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