No, Nikon is Not Sleeping

True, we’ve not seen much Z System news other than the Z9 development announcement out of Nikon in many, many months. But that doesn’t mean they’re sleeping. They’re actually juggling. 

The coincidence of pandemic, reducing staffing, moving manufacturing, parts shortages, and getting new models ready for market all happening at the same time certainly has slowed Nikon. It doesn’t help that shipping from SE Asia to the rest of the world is getting more expensive and delayed. Moreover, management has just been through their usual couple months of their regularly-scheduled planning meetings. With no urgent trade show deadline to meet, Nikon’s product releases are moving at their own pace trying to get things right, not out fast. 

I’d judge Nikon’s biggest problem is getting more things into manufacturing in Thailand at a time when engineers traveling from Japan have to quarantine at both ends of the trip. To my knowledge, at least two cameras and four lenses have been ready to enter manufacturing, but that’s going slowly for the reasons just mentioned.

That said, I still expect at least four, and possibly more Z System announcements in the May/June timeframe. That’s going to pose another challenge. With subsidiary staffing having been cut in many regions, that’s a lot of new products for them to juggle quickly. 

I don’t think Nikon has found their “new normal.” Nikon’s like a salmon swimming upstream against the current right now, and the new virus restrictions just imposed in Tokyo mean the current just got stronger. They’ll manage to get past that, but it’s definitely another thing slowing them down.

Meanwhile, the notion that the Z9 launch could be sped up is mostly wishful thinking. Certainly Nikon wants to launch that product sooner rather than later now that the A1 is out and Canon is whispering R3. But the Z9 features a new image sensor. You can’t really move image sensor production any faster than it is, particularly when virtually every fab is at capacity. 

I suppose if Nikon were going to use the Sony A1’s image sensor, they wouldn’t have any sensor issues in the critical path to release. But I’m pretty sure that Nikon has chosen to make their own sensor, and that means that for a Z9 to launch this summer instead of late fall not only would the sensor design have to be fully tested and locked down already, but production would had to have started on fab a month or two ago. 

I still expect prototype Z9’s at the Tokyo Olympics (if they’re held) in July, and customer release in November (and probably late November). Maybe I’m wrong on that. But I see absolutely no clue that anything has changed in that timing. 

I do know that there was discussion internally about launching a companion DX camera with the Z9. Call that a Z70 or Z90 if you’d like. But I don’t know that this ever rose above discussion level. I’m seeing more evidence that DX and FX aren’t moving in lockstep in the Z development. 

Nikon has a lot to prove this year:

  • Deliver a Z9 that equals, or better yet, exceeds the A1.
  • Add cameras and lenses to the DX side of Z.
  • Release 10 promised lenses.
  • Continue to improve existing cameras via firmware updates.

Personally, I don’t care if that starts to happen this month, next month, or if it all backloads into the second half of the year. But those four things really need to happen before we get to 2022 for the Nikon faithful to feel like Nikon’s got things under control. 

2022 isn’t going to be any easier for Nikon, either:

  • Deliver a Z8 that equals, or better yet, exceeds the A7R Mark IV.
  • Continue to flesh out what the DX side looks like.
  • Release at least another 8 lenses, plus any spillovers from 2021.
  • Find a technology or feature that’s solely Nikon’s to put in the cameras and promote.
  • Update the Z5 and Z50 to II level.

Too many people are underestimating Nikon’s management. Those folk seem to jump to a conclusion that Nikon executives are incompetent or unable to make decisions. I know neither to be true. 

That said, Nikon is making one clear mistake, and that’s the loss of communication to and engagement with customers. Because Nikon-to-customer communication now pretty much solely consists of “new X announced”, when the company is not making new product announcements, the quiet is always interpreted badly by the customer base. Worse still, when X is announced but supply chain issues delay it being available in quantity and it’s out of stock everywhere, that, too, gets interpreted badly by customers because they’re hearing nothing from the Mothership. 

I have no doubt Nikon will iron out the Z System on an engineering basis so that it is competitive from bottom to top. But the customers buying those great tools all feel dis-enfranchised. That’s a correctable problem, but Nikon has not only not recognized they have that problem, but hasn’t corrected it.

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