The Sony Fan Boys Are Whooping it Up

  • "Canon and Nikon were caught napping." 
  • "Game over." 
  • "Sony is going to crush Leica M, high-end APS, low-end FX, and maybe even high-end FX competitors." 
  • "m4/3 can't compete."

Those are some of the comments rolling into my InBox today. I'm sure there will be more.

No doubt that Sony is rolling out lots of interesting products. They also appear to be making adjustments to how they're going to tackle the camera market, too. So let's examine the proclamations of victory by the fan boys a little more carefully. 

What I see in Sony's recent moves is this:

  • Alpha as it used to be (DSLR) seems to be getting less attention and moving more towards mirrorless. Here in the US, Sony's DSLR lineup simply hasn't broken the Canikon duopoly, leaving them with a low single digit market share. Putting lots of energy into the old Alpha DSLR and lens set might engage the faithful, but it clearly isn't bringing new folk into the fold, thus it appears that Sony is backing off from trying to go toe to toe with Canon and Nikon on DSLRs.
  • NEX is the new Alpha. Basically, the NEX marketing name seems to be going away. It seems as if Sony is moving towards a more clear Alpha Mirrorless (E and FE mount) and Alpha Legacy (the old SLR/DSLR A mount). The A7 and A7r don't use the NEX user interface though ;~). The funny thing is that NEX is the only part of the Sony camera branding that's garnered good market shares in its competitive arena. As far as I can tell, NEX (E mount) leads the mirrorless market share worldwide, including here in the US (Nikon is second here in the US). To back away from the successful thing you did, even if only in name, seems a bit strange to me. NEX APS and NEX FF would have been a better choice, I think. 
  • RX is the new "high end" Cybershot. Cybershot market shares have slid badly for Sony. They used to be the number one maker of compact cameras, with Canon nipping at their heels. Now they're number three behind number one Nikon and number two Canon. The RX models push very close against the mirrorless entries, though. Consider the RX10 (1", 24-200mm f/2.8) versus the NEX-6 with the 16-50mm (APS, 24-75mm f/3.5-5.6). When equivalences at the sensor are accounted for, the US$500 less expensive NEX-6 starts to look very good (other than not having 75-200mm). 

In essence, Sony has put out a lot of stuff that competes with themselves and simultaneously attempts to find a chink in the Canikon armor. But note one thing: the prices of most of these new things are high. Very high. I don't mean relatively, I mean in terms of consumer demand. 

The hot point for cameras is US$500-1000. Most cameras being sold today are in that range (other than the remaining compacts aimed at the masses at low price). The RX10, RX1, A7, and A7r are outside that range. So they're not going to cause a stampede to Sony, methinks. Moreover, when you consider lens costs with the A7 and A7r, Sony really is competing with high-end DSLRs, for which many already have legacy lenses. Choice: "buy a D610 or 6D and use my existing lenses or buy an A7 and new lenses?" Don't discount how many will opt for the former, especially when they discover that a "normal" prime costs US$1000 and it's the only available option on Day 1 other than using crop lenses or adapted lenses. 

Brand switching does happen in cameras, but historically it has been a very small percentage. That's partly because neither Canon nor Nikon are stupid. There's nothing stopping them from producing the same cameras Sony just did if Sony appears to get any traction at all. Heck, even Olympus would resurrect full frame if that's the answer to their woes. 

I'd also point out to the Sony fan boys that the A99 is just as vulnerable to the A7 and A7r as the Nikon DSLRs. Though I suspect when you see the focus performance of the new A models, the DSLR side will look just a little bit better than it does today for those folk. 

I've also been clear that the future of DSLRs is mirrorless. Again, it's inevitable simply because of costs. The old DSLR designs are complex, adding costs in the alignment and manufacturing, require more parts, have more long-term needs for servicing, and other issues that are solved by simpler, all-electronic designs. Sony is just trying to get there a little faster than Canon and Nikon, who, after all, have existing cameras that still sell quite well.

Finally, I need to point something else out. It appears that short term we have only two lenses for FE: the kit lens with the A7 and the expensive 35mm prime. And when is that short term? December, about a month-and-half away. Realistically, Sony will have about a month's worth of shipments of a few items in this new A7 world before we hit the big camera announce season that kicks of with January's CES and runs through the CP+ show in Japan in mid-February. I suspect that any perceived success by Sony with these new offerings will be met with announcements from Canikon very quickly. 

Thus, one thing everyone has to do is compare the actual reality of today with the possibility of tomorrow. The reality of November in the mirrorless world is that the OM-D E-M1 is probably be the best available all-around choice (assuming you can find one). Maybe a GX7 or one of the current NEX cameras. Come December, that changes a bit if you're willing to shell out more money and have few lenses. Come January, we'll have additional choices announced, and by March or April of 2014 we'll have quite a wide crop of new offerings, I'll bet. 

So when you're a fan boy making lots of loud noises after an announcement, you're like a football fan who's gone ballistic because their team beat the spread this week. The season ain't even close to over, and the eventual winners not yet apparent. It could be Sony. It might not be Sony. Root for the team of your choice all you want, but the actual outcome will be determined in the camera shops over a long period of time. 

I don't discount what Sony's done with their broad array of announcements this fall, and I actually really like some of the cameras of theirs I've been using (RX1, RX100II, for example). But it's premature to proclaim any victory. All we can say is that we're getting interesting—maybe even exciting—new offerings to contemplate, and that we're continuing to see subtle shifts in the camera market that hint at a more connected, electronic future.

So kudos to Sony for taking chances and pushing towards that future (though Sony, you really need to up your software game quite a bit: PlayMemories is still not there yet).  

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