m4/3 Expands

No real surprise in this announcement, as much of this was already known: Olympus today announced that five additional companies have joined the Micro Four Thirds standard. The companies are:

  • Blackmagic Design—they've already announced their m4/3 Cinema Camera.
  • JK Imaging—a Chinese company that has licensed the Kodak brand name and will produce the Kodak PixPro S1 mirrorless still camera in Q3 of 2013.
  • Photron—makes advanced high-speed video cameras, but has no announced m4/3 product yet.
  • SVS-Visktek—maker of the SVCam, a series of high performance CCD cameras used mostly in machine vision applications.
  • ViewPlus—a maker of the Lumiere series of high performance video cameras (e.g. 4k at 60fps).

It's interesting that so many of these companies are in the video world, but not surprising. For many years now I've been pointing out that Canon and Nikon, in particular, have been making a mistake with their go-it-alone strategy. As new companies start doing interesting new things in imaging, they look for lenses. The only truly openly licensable mount where the makers have agreed to exchange information at the moment is the m4/3 mount (the Sony NEX E-Mount is also licensable). 

Thus, a new camera company can solve its lens needs pretty easily by just joining m4/3. The alternative is to reverse engineer one of the other existing mounts, like the Canon EF or Nikon F mount. The problem there is that both those companies have continued to tweak specifications over the years and there is a strong chance that they will continue to in order to disrupt competitors. For lens companies like Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina, reverse engineering these tweaks and keeping up with changes has been a never-ending process for them. Easier to be part of a standard.

The other thing going for m4/3 is sensor size. Physically smaller sensors are cheaper than larger ones. Indeed, the costs all add up nearly exponentially for larger sensors. True, all else equal a larger sensor has image quality advantages over a smaller one, but the real money is always to be made at the "sweet spot." Whether that sweet spot is m4/3 or APS/DX is debatable, but there is no standards organization in APS/DX. 

For Olympus and Panasonic, the two original m4/3 product makers, there's safety in numbers. More cameras will attract more lens makers. More lens makers will attract more camera makers. As much as anything in the camera world, m4/3 is going viral. What was it that Michael Corleone said in The Godfather? "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." Canon and Nikon have failed at that. m4/3 seems to be doing a better job at it.

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