Tag Archives: gear

Dead Battery: the Future of OEM Obstructionism

Dead Battery: 3rd party EN-EL14AA recent Nikon firmware update for their mid-range and entry-level DSLRs (D5200, D5100, D3200, D3100) appears to have eliminated these cameras’ ability to be properly powered by many 3rd party EN-EL14A rechargeable batteries manufactured to-date.

The gesture isn’t new to Nikon, or unique to it. Other premier camera manufacturers as well seemingly wouldn’t miss an opportunity to slap 3rd party makers of batteries, lenses and accessories for their systems. The camera makers’ motives are understandable: they want the users to buy from them in order to capitalize on their R&D investment. Additionally, they want to minimize support overhead arising from their equipment interfacing with 3rd party products.

There’s no doubt that 3rd party manufacturers will, in time, produce batteries compatible with the new firmware, and that many users will take the risk buying them because of the savings. In my mind there are two questions less trivial:

  1. Is OEM technological obstructionism even sustainable beyond the short-term?
  2. Is it in the camera makers’ own best interest?

1. In this day and age of highly automated, globalized manufacture, the quality gap between OEM-branded and 3rd party products has been shrinking. While OEMs still have effective legal means of defense (patent and trade dress protection) against larger players in developed markets, with every passing year it will be more of an uphill battle for OEMs to use technical means to defend their market share for accessories that are simple, not innovative, and priced with a large profit margin.

2. We photo equipment users want to save money, but at the same time we don’t want the makers of our camera systems to go out of business or to relinquish their focus on quality and innovation.  The way I look at it, however, a $40 lens cap does not prompt OEMs to kick innovation into a high gear – instead it prompts them to become complacent. What works is disruptive innovation, similar to how RED has burst onto the indie film-making gear scene and got the incumbent manufacturers like SONY and Canon to stop resting on their laurels and deliver compelling offerings of their own that would otherwise have taken a decade or more to arrive in that price range.

I believe, the future belongs to:

  • Open source hardware and software,
  • Transparent interfaces and protocols,
  • User-driven development.

Does that leave a spot under the sun for traditional brands like NIKON and SONY? I think, more so than ever – so long as brands focus on their core and essence, and let go of 20th century ways of doing business. Namely:

  • A brand at its core is nothing more than a promise of a certain user experience. Make sure the experience being delivered is building the brand rather than eroding it. No crowd sourcing project or a knock-off lens cap would threaten a brand that is doing its job.
  • Innovation and quality control. Yes 3rd party makers can come up with anything eventually, but not right away and at the level of performance and consistent quality of OEMs. The latter can thus command a fair premium by staying ahead of the game.

Today, like in any other transformative period in history, folks who embrace and lead the change are the ones who benefit the most. I certainly wish Nikon, Canon, SONY and others to be among such beneficiaries.

Would you trade your SLR for a smartphone?

For photos, would you trade your SLR for a smartphone?

According to the WSJ article by J. Osawa, declining sales of DSLRs and lenses are signaling that the market as a whole is doing just that. Conventional wisdom would suggest that while camera-phones could compete with basic compacts, surely DSLRs with their huge DSLR vs. Smartphonesensors and interchangeable lenses would be safe.

Yet market data does not lie – those sales figures are what they are. What I believe is happening is the rules of the game (of delivering cameras that the market wants) just got changed. DSLRs still win hands-down at the old game (quality, performnce, control), but that is quickly becoming only a part of what makes a good camera.

What’s the other part? Editing and connectivity. Today’s reality is, people want the best shots, with basic post-processing, to be up online right now. Instagram gets you there in 10 seconds, and if you invent something that gets you there in 5, you will kill Instagram. Smartphones’ full-time internet connectivity and their processing power that can be brought to bear in 3rd party photography apps, put together, is a game changer.

If DSLR manufacturers want to keep selling to amateurs, enthusiasts, as well as pros in many fields, they need their DSLRs’ internet and app capability to match that of the smartphones. SONY DSC-QX100 which is basically a high quality sensor and lens that communicates with a smartphone via WiFi and NFC and can clip onto it,  is the writing on the wall. WiFi-enabled memory cards or dongles, and camera-smartphone hybrids, are other vectors aiming at the same ultimate solution. Perhaps we’ll see SIM card slots next to memory slots in future DSLRs, backed by lifetime unlimited data plans.

The next few years will be very transformative for SLRs, I believe. One thing we can all count on is, good photos will still be good, among the abundance of of bad ones. We’ll just be seeing them all a lot sooner. And that, as always, will have been a sign of the times.

Design of Everyday and Extraordinary Things

What little sense of industrial design I have, has been seeded in me during my undergrad years at Voenmeh in Leningrad, Soviet Union (now St. Petersburg, Russia).

Soviet veteran is still grateful to his T34 which has sheltered him throughout WWII
Soviet veteran is still grateful to his T34 which has sheltered him throughout WWII

Soviet military/aerospace design philosophy’s core aim was to keep its user alive, through simplicity of use and maintenance, and maximum performance at a given cost. Visually, it boils down to plainness taken to such an extreme it can be called nudity or coarse honesty:

  • If something is designed to come apart, do not hide the seams or fasteners.
  • Conversely, do not draw fake seams or lines.
  • A straight line is better than a curve; a consistent curve is better than a combination of different curves.
  • Usage made obvious through shape and placement is better than a textual or graphical label.
  • Do not make materials pretend to be other materials, or take on an unnatural for them role.
  • If it works well and is cheap to make but appears ugly, so be it – it’ll grow on its users over time.

This often runs awry of the Western design sensibility where things are beautified and embellished with originality to move merch and bolster the designer’s profile. But can stark Russki design be domesticated and have its place in everyday or extraordinary things?

Jony Ive and Marc Newson, famous designers behind iconic Apple products among other innovations, have brought their talents to bear to give a truly unique (limited edition of one) design treatment to the Leica M series digital rangefinder camera. The camera will join 40 other unique items to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s in New York on November 23rd 2013. The camera’s sale is estimated to raise $500-750K for The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Needless to say, Jony Ive and Marc Newson have done an incredible job that represents the very best of Western design. The top picture is the back of this camera as designed by Jony and Marc.RED One-off Leica My Redesign

This bottom picture represents my Russki attempt. Specific comments:

А: Given there is no functional separation between the top and the display, we eliminate the “false” frame line. The “honest” line at the bottom stays, as functionally the bottom on Leica M is removable.
Б: The flat area to the left of the display appears to be solely a printing surface for the labels. It kicks the design off-balance, making the camera look heavy on the left. An ugly compromise on what is supposed to be a product of few compromises, certainly from the design perspective.
В: …Which brings us to the question: Do we even need those buttons labeled? We photogs know our cameras and can operate them by touch without looking. None of these buttons’ functions are destructive on a first press (even delete would generally ask for a confirmation), and press-and-hold can easily be made to display the legend for these buttons on the rear monitor. The front buttons have no labels, the zoom buttons have no labels. We want to be clean and consistent. Everything screams “eliminate the labels”.
Г: Premium products don’t need loud branding. Small and tasteful is the way to go.
Д: Speaking of superfluous labels, “INFO” is almost comically so. Everything is information, so by saying “INFO” it is not giving us any info. On the same note, everyone knows how 4-way switches operate, we do not need a tiny arrow (or dot!) reminding us that left is left, right is right, top is top, bottom is bottom. Eliminate.
Е: This appears to be an activity LED. If so, illuminate the gap around the “INFO” button instead, and eliminate the separate LED “hole feature”.

I have no doubt the camera will sell fine as-is, and hope it brings in a lot of money for The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Nov 23 update: the camera has sold for an amazing $1.805 million!