The Model Conundrum

The recent introduction of the E-M1 Mark III has everyone thinking about Olympus camera models the wrong way (looking backwards, not forward). Clearly, the next model Olympus will bring out should be the E-M10 Mark IV. 

But think about that for a moment. If that's what happens, we then probably have four Olympus models with basically the same sensor/brains. The bigger problem comes two years from now: what exactly would a E-M1 Mark IV (or the next E-M5 or E-M1X) look like? Moreover, does Olympus have enough volume to sustain four models all running the same modest increments of technology?

Basically, whatever you think of their current lineup, Olympus has a future model conundrum. But so do most mirrorless camera makers.

Sony, for instance, is in a similar position. With a declining market size, do they dare offer additional models in their lineup, and if so, where would they be positioned? Adding new models in a declining market isn't efficient. You need to have the right number of models for your volume, correctly positioned from each other.

So it's probably worthwhile to go through the makers at the moment and see where they are and whether they have anywhere to go:

  1. Canon — Canon seems to be settled into a four model APS-C lineup (M5, M6, M50, M100). For full frame, the pre-announcements and rumors have it they'll soon add two models (R5 and R6). The RP still seems to fit with those long term (entry full frame), while the R seems more likely to go away. Pioneers have it rough ;~). 

    Given that Canon is a market share leader in interchangeable lens cameras (ILC), I'm pretty sure they'll pursue becoming the leader in mirrorless as it turns into the dominant component of ILC as DSLRs continue to wilt. Thus, Canon very well may throw more models into the mix in the future. Clearly, an R1 (1Dx equivalent) is likely, probably in 2023/2024. I strongly suspect an R7 (or R10 as I refer to it below), too (APS-C mirrorless replacement for 7D). 

    With R models, Canon hasn't quite hit the conundrum point that others have because they have DSLR models they still need to transfer over. 

    It's the M line that seems very suspicious to me. Sustaining two different, incompatible mirrorless lens mounts doesn't work, as far as I'm concerned. If I were running the show, it would be R1, R5, R6, RP (full frame) and then using their current numbering system a new group for APS-C of R10, R50, R60, R100, all using the RF mount. But maybe Canon will define their lines as ones with EVF (R1, R5, R6, RP, R50, R70) and ones without (M6, M50, M100). Yeah, I don't like that and you shouldn't, either. That's model conundrum squared to me. You're making APS-C upgraders switch mounts, and thus open up their choice to the competition as you do so.

    Summary: Canon is not yet in model conundrum, they're in model confusion.

  1. Fujifilm — Given its small market share, I'd argue that Fujifilm already has too many models (at least in the XF lineup). Moreover, it really needs to conform model numbers more so that product generations are more readily understood. Thus, it really should be X-A400, X-T400, X-T40, and X-T4 as their primary products. I'd argue that the X-Pro line hasn't gone anywhere and won't in the future, though it is a unique camera that a few won't want to see go. X-H rumors come and go. Maybe it will return with a second model, maybe not. But I don't see how Fujifilm avoids the Olympus conundrum problem if it does: X-Pro, X-T, and X-H have huge overlap now, and probably would in the future, too.

    Then we have the GF medium format cameras: GFX50, GFX100 is probably all we need. Having that third model in there (R and S versions of the 50) isn't a big issue given the high price, low volume nature of MF, though. As is happening right now, Fujifilm is using the GFX50R as "gateway drug to MF" (e.g. that body is currently US$3500, the lowest price of any MF by a significant margin, and you can get a US$500 lens for it, too). Hook 'em and upgrade them. 

    Fujifilm, like Olympus, has probably hit the model conundrum problem head on, though. They don't need any additional models and probably should cut a few models, so now the problem is how do you make an X-T5 (and its siblings) stand out and attract more customers in the next generation? That's the conundrum facing everyone. Some just got there sooner.

  2. Nikon — Like Canon, Nikon is in transition. However, Nikon hasn't proliferated mirrorless cameras yet, so it has no real model conundrum in the near term. With only a Z50, Z6, and Z7 on the market right now, Nikon has clear room for at least four new mirrorless models.

    So let's break that down. In APS-C (DX), a Z30 that goes up against Canon's M6, and a Z70 that brings a top-end DX camera back into the mix (D7500/D500) should be givens. In full frame, a true entry (Z5) and true action camera (Z9) are also likely givens, and there's still possibly room to sneak a high pixel count pro Z8 in there, too. 

    Nikon's delay actually probably helped it a bit, because it allowed Nikon to get its strategy straight for their DSLR-to-mirrorless transition. Coupled with Z lens announcements, Nikon more so than any other camera maker is in a position to constantly be bringing something "new" to the mirrorless market, and for quite some time. They're further away from model conundrum than any other maker.

  3. Olympus — At 340,000 units a year and likely still heading lower, Olympus needs to get better at model differentiation and probably lose a model in the process. Technically, they've sort of been doing that latter bit: the Pen-F and E-PM series seem to be dead ends where "all sales are final."

    Still, that leaves E-PL10, E-M10, E-M5, E-M1, and E-M1X, the latter three of which are starting to look a lot like the same camera in slightly different variations. I'm not sure what actual problem the E-M1X solves over an E-M1 with its optional vertical grip, for instance. 

    I'd judge Olympus to be in full model conundrum at this point. Because they're not changing image sensor specs much, they don't have a low-resolution and high-resolution model pairing, nor do they really have a speed differential between models, current and past, either. So it's tough to figure out what their next model might really be. Both for us, as customers, but for them as engineers, too.

  4. Panasonic — When I went to the Panasonic sites to see how they regarded their camera lineup—yes, there seem to be multiples, both globally and regionally—what I found was a mess when it came to trying to figure out what it thinks its current model lines are. 

    Sure, the full frame mirrorless seems pretty easy to figure out: S1, S1R, S1H. That's basically Panasonic's equivalents to the Sony A7, A7R, and A7S (though Panasonic emphasizes different video features on the S1H than Sony does on the A7S). Panasonic's also now talking openly about what would essentially be an entry full frame body, too. That would fill its full frame lineup and put it in model conundrum mode for the next generation.

    m4/3 is little more problematic. Here in the US it seems like the lineup goes GX9, G7, G85, G9, GH5, GH5s, and I'm a little confused by that muddle in the middle. It feels like it should really go GM10, GX10, G10, GH6. Still, in m4/3 Panasonic has run into the same basic problem as Olympus: it's in model conundrum mode no matter how it slices those models.

    Given their volume, I think Panasonic's being ambitious with full frame and not clearly focused with its m4/3 offerings. I can't imagine that its current lineup is even close to efficient in producing sales. 

  5. Sony — Sony is easy to define at the moment in terms of models: A6100, A6400, A6600, A7, A7R, A7S, and A9. Only a lot of older versions of those clog up the shelves, too, which just makes a mess of the marketing. You want to be careful about getting people buying by price—older models at discount—because that tends to drive pricing expectations for new models downward to the point where you can't sustain profit margins.

    In full frame, Sony is in near model conundrum. It really doesn't have an entry full frame model (or appropriate entry lenses for it; no, the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 is not something Sony wants to keep putting in users' hands). So, in that respect, Sony has one new model to explore. Elsewhere in full frame, not so much. The A7, A7R, A7S, and A9 define the upper end of the market pretty well these days. I can't help but think that Sony will bump sensors to make the model mix look like it's still fully iterating (as Sony did with the A7R in the recent Mark IV update). Do we really need a 35mp A7, 100mp A7R, 24mp A7S? I'm not sure that's solving any real problem for photographers. Yet that's how I believe Sony will solve its model conundrum problem: more pixels, more fps, more other things.

    For the crop sensor line, Sony has three 24mp A6### cameras that I can't keep track of how they actually differ. That's full on model conundrum, and similar to Olympus' problem with the top three E-M's. To me, Sony's lineup should probably be 24mp A6###, 26mp A7###, and ?mp A9###, and with some clearer differentiation in other features/performance. Perhaps the A7### and A9### are a DSLR-style body (EVF centered), for instance. Moreover, without updating the 35-year old—in dog and ILC years—A5### model, Sony is ceding the low-end EVF-less market to Canon and Fujifilm, basically. 

    Summary: Sony full frame is in a near model conundrum state that will trigger more megapixel increases, while crop sensor is just in a massively confused state.

Yes, I'm being harsh in my assessments here. But the reality of the overall ILC market is that it is still downsizing and the mirrorless market is not growing. Not having clearly differentiated models with clear upgrade paths is a surefire way to make the market slow even more. Why? Because the key users you want to upgrade every other generation or so will not do so when your models stagnate and enter conundrum stage.

This has been the key criteria in tech products for some time: clearly differentiate, evolve, and revolutionize, or the product line dies.

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