Camera sales are continuing to falling off a cliff. The latest data from the Camera & Imaging Products Association (CIPA) shows them in a swoon befitting a Bollywood roadside Romeo. All four big camera brands — Sony, Fuji, Canon, and Nikon — are reposting rapid declines. And it is not just the point and shoot cameras whose sales are collapsing. We also see sales of higher-end DSLR cameras stall. And — wait for it — even mirrorless cameras, which were supposed to be a panacea for all that ails the camera business, are heading south.
Of course, by aggressively introducing newer and newer cameras with marginal improvements, companies like Fuji and Sony are finding that they might have created a headache. There is now a substantial aftermarket for casual photographers looking to save money on the companies’ generation-old products. Even those who can afford to buy the big 60-100 megapixel cameras are pausing. After all, doing so also involves buying a beefier computer. (Hello Mac Pro, cheese grater edition!)
I have seen this movie play out before — but in a different market.
Server Side Up
Servers and workstations were once a very robust business that supported many companies. Some, like Sun Microsystems, made their own silicon, operating system, applications, and hardware. They printed money — so much, in fact, that they were once regarded as one of the four horsemen of the Internet. And then came the attack of commodity workstations crafted out of Microsoft Operating Systems and Intel Chips.
Then Linux arrived and started eating the server market from below. Sun responded by making the bigger and more muscular servers sought by big banks, three-letter agencies and some large corporations. For a while, this strategy blunted the attack, but eventually the company had to capitulate. They made Linux machines. They made devices based on Intel chips. They got into pizza servers. But none of it prevented them from becoming a footnote in the history of Silicon Valley.
In 2000, at the peak of Internet mania, and when WinTel and Linux started to become players in the server business, the total market was just over $65 billion. In 2018, worldwide server sales were over $90 billion. A majority of the buyers were companies that were focused on building out their own data centers and big clouds. In short, the overall demand grew and companies that didn’t adapt to this commodity-based reality were gone. Sun and Silicon Graphics were the most famous, but the list of names is long. Sun’s corporate tagline was, “the network is the computer.” I guess the executives didn’t get the memo.
Let me bring the parallels between servers and cameras into focus for you. Sony and its brethren have taken a page from the Sun playbook. They keep pushing cameras that have features, like higher megapixels, most people don’t use or care about. And the executives don’t seem to get a key fact about the market reality: what we do with cameras and photos has changed.
In my pocket, I have a smartphone with a camera that just keeps getting smarter and more capable. It plays an essentially identical role to the one occupied by commodity servers in that industry’s saga. Because hundreds of millions of phones are sold every year, it is possible for companies like Apple, Google, Samsung and Huawei to pour billions into researching and improve their phone cameras, not to mention the software and algorithms. Thanks to this cocktail of better chips, better processing, better sensor and ever-improving algorithms, the future belongs to computational photography.
Photography industry purists recoil at the notion that their idea of future is wrong. When I suggest that the lifecycle of a photo will start and end with a digital screen, many dismiss it as unartistic. Though, I will say that I recently saw a 30-inch print of one of my photos, and to my amazement, it looked very artistic, indeed. But that is a rarity. Frankly, I was blown away that someone would pay me money to put one of my photos on their wall. The truth is, these naysayers are right — most of us aren’t creating art.
What we are doing is creating selfies, documenting moments with family, and snapping photos of food and latte art. We aren’t even trying to build a scrapbook of those images. It is all a stream — less for remembrance than for real-time sharing. In other words, we have changed our relationship with photography and photographs. It used to be that, photos served as a portal to our past. Now, we are moving so fast as we try to keep up in the age of infinitesimal attention spans. A minute, might as well be a month ago.
People talk about printing photos, but very few people actually do. Most of our images are sitting in cloud accounts that sync with our smartphone cameras. Occasionally, someone buys an Aura Frame (or something like it) because they want to view these photos in actual frames. I am a big Aura fan, and I use the frame to see the photos of people I love, like my parents, my immediate family, my goddaughters, and a few friends. But mostly, our pictures — even the best ones — function as glorified postcards on Instagram, Facebook, or some other messaging app. No one on WhatsApp cares if you made a photo in 50 megapixels or 12 megapixels Just as, in the cloud, no one gives two hoots if your server is Sun, Dell or HP.
I have a five-year old camera, and I can’t conceive of a convincing reason to get a new one. The one I own was very good at the start of its life, it cost me a lot of money, and I suspect it has a long life ahead of it. And to be clear, I am extremely fond of my camera. I find absolutely no joy in the demise of the standalone camera.
I would be bereft without my Leica SL, and it would limit my ability to create images of a certain type. Leica, at least there is a loyal following of dedicated customers, but ones such as Nikon and Canon, are particularly vulnerable in the near future. But, while I certainly think that the manufacturers could work harder at adapting, I don’t see a future in which these cherished objects are spared their fate.
I have seen this movie before, and I will see it again and again.
A long time ago, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy quipped, “Technology has the shelf life of a banana. By the time you buy it, implement it and train people on it, it’s obsolete.” He was talking about servers, but I can’t help but think that his words are just as true for cameras.