Haven't We Seen This Before?

Panasonic today launched the m4/3-based G5 camera and a new 45-150mm f/4-5.6 lens. Most people looking at the pre-announcement are probably having a deja vu moment all over again. This is, after all, the ninth model in the G series.

Let's get one thing clear up front: "Pricing and availability will be announced approximately 30 days prior to shipping." In other words, this is actually a pre-announcement with a few key details missing. Thus, Panasonic's use of the words "new addition" and the present tense in their press release is more like a birth announcement from someone who just learned the sex of their upcoming child via sonogram than an actual birth announcement. More on why that tactic is being used in a few paragraphs, but as it turns out, in at least one regional press conference Panasonic said "mid-August." Which I thought was thirty days away.

Before exploring the marketing tactics more, we need to address what was disclosed about the Panasonic's upcoming progeny.

Not a lot of significance seems to be changing from the G3 to the G5. The G5 appears to use a reworked 16mp sensor along with a newer image processing engine (Venus VII; I'm tempted to say that the Roman numerals show how old it is ;~). Someone in the design group likes curves, so we get a slightly less angular body silhouette than before, much like the GF3's move from the boxier GF2 that preceded it. The hand grip position seems to have been bolstered, too.

A few things that went away in previous G's are back: the AE/AF lock button, the EVF eye sensor, for example. We get a better rear LCD (920k dot), another frame per second (now 6 fps), a silent electronic shutter mode, and a few other minor tweaks as well, all while adding just 60g in weight and a tiny bit of bulk in size. For all intents and purposes, a refined G3. Curiously, the addition of 1080P/60 (50 in PAL countries) seems to be encroaching on the GH2's video camera territory, so perhaps something much more interesting is coming in the eventual GH3's video.

Meanwhile, the pre-announced 45-150mm lens also looks a bit familiar, though it's lighter and shorter than the old 45-200mm.

Back to the marketing side. As we get closer and closer to Photokina we start to see the confidence camera companies have in their latest products. The meek bury their releases early—well before the show—hoping to get a little more marketing bump by being pumped out in the usually silent period that comes before the long pre-Photokina product announcement onslaught (this year, starts in August, probably just after the Olympics). Announcing products just prior to the Olympics also means they get pretty much forgotten unless you're promoting them duringthe Olympics and the products are immediately available. I doubt that's the case here. On the other hand, if Panasonic shipsthe camera just prior to or during Photokina—which seems to be the case here—their marketing team probably is operating on the premise that they get the benefit of a double PR bump. Still, that's an indication of a weaker product than one that is a huge surprise and held to be announced the week prior to Photokina, driving traffic to the company's trade show booth (think Fujifim X100 last Photokina and what it spawned).

Those of us in the US have started paying less attention to Panasonic's "announcements" anyway since it's now clear that the US market is relegated to last in terms of actual product roll out. The cynic in me says we Americans will see these new items just in time for the Christmas shopping season, after which they immediately go on discount.

But let me get my cranky commentator hat squarely on and my snarky keyboard truly fired up: is this really the best Panasonic could do in 14 months? I understand the need to iterate, but on paper the G5 seems like a weak iteration, not a tangible one (actual image quality assessment will have to wait for cameras and might change that view, but Panasonic's press release and announcement presentations don't seem to be promising a lot there). This is putting even more pressure on the expected GH3: the GH2 update really needs to stand out as a clear step forward, not another tweak session. Let's hope the GH3 is a surprise show at Photokina and that big new product we've been looking for from the company.

Unfortunately, Panasonic has been one of the companies losing market share in cameras. Nothing they announced today is likely to change that (they also announced an LX-7 and other compact cameras). Of course, at their press conferences announcing the G5, they were quick to claim that mirrorless cameras will overtake DSLRs in unit volume by 2015 (claim now added to my Claims to Remember). The only problem I see with their rah-rah about mirrorless unit volume is that two players have 80%+ of the DSLR volume and both of them will be participating in mirrorless, as well. Meanwhile, there are six other major players in mirrorless.

So let's crunch Panasonic's estimates for a moment. Panasonic estimates overall 2015 DSLR sales at 11.8m. Split that 45%, 35, 15, 5 to Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax. Mirrorless are estimated to be 12.2m in that year. Split that, hmm, how do we split that? Let's be magnanimous and say m4/3 has 40% of the market split equally between Panasonic and Olympus, with Canon, Nikon, and Sony all collecting only 15% shares. It won't happen that way, but bear with me. That puts Panasonic's volume at 2.4m units out of an interchangeable lens camera market of 24m, or a 10% market share. That's being magnanimous. Canon in that scenario is still at 7.1m units, or about 30% of the market. In short, under what I'd consider a wickedly successful Panasonic scenario (and disastrous for Canon), it still doesn't crack the duopoly nut.

That's really the problem I've been pointing out all along. It takes a wild disruption to break Canon/Nikon in the interchangeable lens camera market. The G5 isn't it (just as the G3, GF3, GX1, and GF5 weren't it), so we wait patiently for the next announcement.

Data pages for the G5 and 45-150mm lens have been added to this site.

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