The Curious Case of Nikon Updates

As everyone is just now figuring out, the recent Z8 2.00 and Z9 5.00 firmware updates still don’t conform the two cameras to the same exact configurations, options, or functions. The Z8 now has Pixel shift shooting, the top-of-the-line Z9 does not. The Z9 now has High frequency flicker reduction presets, the Z8 does not. The list of differences goes on, and on, and on. 

Many years ago I used to believe that Nikon’s firmware updates were constrained by some internal memory constriction. That belief stemmed from my knowledge of how the film SLRs used a form of EEPROM, and then later how Nikon sometimes took a feature out of a DSLR to put a new one in. I suppose it’s possible for some form of memory limitation still to be in effect, but I no longer believe that’s the driving issue for these differences.

Nikon uses an independent team approach to cameras. It’s not the same team working on all cameras, it’s individual teams for each camera. These teams cycle and hop scotch. For instance, many from the D3 team including the leader went on to be the Nikon 1 team. That was partly because Nikon back in 2008 already knew that the future of autofocus was centered on the image sensor, not a separate component, and they wanted a top team working on that. 

Each camera team within Nikon seems able to make many of its own design decisions, which explains some of the odd things and differences that have happened along the way. 

I don’t have any issues with a team approach like this. However, this does bring into play how the teams are managed. Who’s doing the work trying to keep the teams on the same basic path? 

At Nikon, that management tends to be financially driven, not customer driven. The management above the teams is more worried about costs and profit margins, which suggests part reuse and rationalization, then they are customer-driven choices, which suggests function/UX reuse and rationalization. 

As I’ve written before, I was trained for and performed product line management for most of my career, and I believe that this requires more attention to the customer side. Products need to be clearly defined and organized, otherwise customers get confused. 

Should you buy a Z8 or a Z9? I don’t know. The dynamics of that choice seem to vary with firmware update! Even with both cameras now recently updated, I don’t understand why a Z8 user would need HEIF and Pixel shift shooting over a Z9 user. And why would a Z9 user need the Profoto A10 support and high-frequency lighting presets over a Z8 user? 

The devil’s in the details, too. The Z8 firmware added programmability to a lot of extra buttons. The Z9, not so much. I’m still trying to figure out if I can make my Z9 controls exactly match my Z8 ones. There seem to be some key differences, still. 

While making all these significant firmware updates is getting Nikon a lot of props from its users, at the same time it is also introducing questions that don’t seem answerable, and which also confuse those same users. Moreover, it makes marketing more difficult. Quick question: what’s Nikon’s best mirrorless camera? Well, that would be a Z9. Unless you need Pixel Shift Shooting or HEIF. Uh, what? Aren’t those things I’d expect in the “best” camera and not so much lower in the lineup? 

So I have a question: does Nikon even have a chart somewhere that tracks all of the features they do on one axis and cameras that have those features on the other? Yes, I know it would be a whopper of a chart. But it would quickly point out the issues from the marketing/customer side with the current situation. To me, what I see is a somewhat random jumble on that chart, not a logical progression. Even accounting for differences in model age, the chart is a mess right now. 

Bottom line: only Nikon knows why they’re making these seemingly random feature choices. Except I’m betting that they don’t actually know why they’re doing it. Which would be a problem, right?

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