The Pressures on Nikon

With four cameras, fourteen lenses, and a handful of accessories, Nikon is definitely on its way with getting a full mirrorless system in place. However, all is not clear sailing. Nikon's facing a number of pressures that they definitely need to respond to, and they need to move quicker. Let me outline the things still problematic in the Z system world:

  1. Fourteen lenses is not sixty-five lenses, the FTZ adapter notwithstanding. I know plenty of customers still sitting on the sidelines because a lens they would need/use has not appeared yet. I list six categories of such missing lenses on the Lens Roadmap page. Nikon's future success is dependent upon them delivering in all those categories, partly because they simply keep playing the proprietary game. Sony licensed the E/FE mount to others. Nikon hasn't licensed the Z mount to anyone that I know of, so the entire burden of the lens set falls on Nikkor's shoulders. With luck, Sigma and Tamron will get around to reverse engineering the mount and provide additional options. But for now, lens availability is a problem Nikon HQ owns.
  2. The entry point is too high. Basically, it's US$1000 (Z50 plus kit lens). The Canon EOS M50 undercuts that (US$650). The Fujifilm X-T200 undercuts that (US$800). The Sony A6100 undercuts that (US$850). And all those are list prices; many have rebates in place at the moment. And all have broader lens sets than Z DX does, which is the same thing as point #1, above (Nikon 2 versus Canon 8, Fujifilm 33, and Sony 19). Likewise, the Z5 came in at US$1400 (body) versus Canon RP at US$1000 (body). A little bit of price push is fine, but as things stand today, Nikon is pushing too hard on keeping the price high. They're losing sales because of that.
  3. The supply chain appears rocky. You'd think that a company that went through an earthquake, tsunami, and flood, and then ran back into the meeting rooms trying to build a more flexible and redundant supply chain would be able to weather the virus running around. Everyone's having issues with it, but Nikon seems to be hit worse than some. This isn't just a mirrorless system only problem at Nikon, it appears to be systemic. Time is not on Nikon's side; pandemic or not, they need to fix this soon. Product shipment delays, low product availability, and missing accessories have to stop to be competitive.
  4. The Associated Press' deal with Sony has no response. The AP is going with Sony this round of buying (tends to happen every four years or so, and Canon and Nikon have traditionally fought hard over these big agency purchases in the past). That means that most of the AP photographers are now going silent shutter, faster frame rate, and no blackout in the viewfinder than the old DSLRs can provide. Of course, I'm not sure the A9 Mark II body is going to hold up to the abuse that the Canon 1DX and Nikon D# cameras can, and AP is going to suddenly see file sizes increase. But that didn't stop the big purchase, and it means that Nikon needs a Z9, and as soon as possible. 
  5. Starting in the middle, Nikon went lower. This sort of goes with item #4: Nikon put the Z6 under the D780, the Z7 under the D850 in terms of features/specs/performance. Not a lot under, but just enough to keep the mirror-slapping models a bit higher specified. Sony's been pushing upwards, particularly with the A9 and A7R models, but that came well after the initial A7/A7R Mark I/II models. Nikon sort of started somewhere between Sony's Mark II and Mark IV point. Since then, though, they've gone down: Z50 at the bottom, Z5 between it and the Z6. This is definitely strategic. But it puts great pressure on the DSLRs to hold serve a bit longer, and now the expectations are jacked up for what a Z8 or Z9 would look like. Nikon, who started the speed/studio camera combo with the D1h/D1x, now finds themselves without a pro speed/studio combo (Z8/Z9) with Sony now well established and Canon now pushing out of the gate (R5/R6). But the need to update the two-year-old Z6/Z7 combo by the end of the year also means that those models need to be pushed up, as well. That puts a lot in a small window (Z6 Mark II, Z7 Mark II, Z8, Z9). Getting the definitions absolutely right is the real pressure point here.
  6. Cognitive dissonances in the camera/lens lineup. Every new mount has this issue to a degree at first, but Nikon is currently promulgating the problem. We don't really have a camera yet that fully justifies the f/2.8 zoom trio and the 50mm f/1.2 (see #5; the current Z's may be used by pros, but they're really mid-range cameras). What's really needed is a smaller telephoto travel zoom (70-200mm f/4 or a 70-300mm f/4-5.6) and those compact primes. Those better match the cameras currently available, but one isn't on the road map and the other two are "next year." And if I'm right that next year we'll get higher end cameras, less than half of the 2021 lenses would match up with that (the S-lines in the road map). Thus, there's pressure on Nikon to resolve the lens/body availability dissonances as rapidly as possible.
  7. Nikon never had a close customer relationship, but it's gotten worse. In recent product launches, I've managed to chat with Canon, Fujifilm, and Sony engineers and marketing staff, and I suspect I could have with Panasonic, too, but I was traveling at the time. Nikon? Bueller? Bueller? I mentioned the missing press release email, but there doesn't seem to be anyone of note answering questions at Nikon at the moment. Where's Dixie? Where's Joe? Where are the product managers? Yes, Ricci posted a video. Not all is completely quiet. But there's a huge level of "here it is" to Nikon's launches lately. They're almost smartphoning it in ;~). Oh, and did emails go out to registered Nikon DSLR users that NikonUSA is targeting with the Z5? I don't think so (update: apparently, some did go out to D600 owners). Basic marketing is "here it comes," "here it is", "this is what we launched." Mostly what we got was "here it is," and tepidly so, at that. And the 70-200mm? Total MIA on that, Nikon marketing; you've let the customer think there's something really wrong. (The customer will always make up stories when you don't manage the story.)

You'll note that most of the things I list have something in common: time.

Nikon is a consensus-management-from-the-top company. Those aren't traditionally fast to move. Just the opposite, as consensus takes time. The work two-days at home and stagger the in-office personnel due to the virus didn't help. It's difficult enough as it is to manage by fax machine ("oh, you mean we should have made a Web cam and started using that?"). The restrictions on travel from Japan to where Nikon's supply chain and production plants (other than Sendai and its feeders) didn't help, either. But it's exposed Nikon's Achilles Heel. 

The thing about the tech business—and cameras are absolutely tech now—is that you get no relief. It doesn't matter if there's a natural or man-made disaster, it doesn't matter if you need to reorg, it doesn't matter if you took a wrong fork somewhere and need to backtrack a bit. What matters is that you start getting ahead of customer expectations with clear and regular progress, and you keep doing so, no matter what.

Some people fault Nikon for the DL and KeyMission failures, or the Nikon 1 dead end. I don't. You don't get and stay ahead in tech by "sticking with what you know." Failure is informative when analyzed properly. What we really need is a little more urgency from Nikon, and we need more engagement of customers by Nikon. In terms of tech, I'm sure Nikon will figure out all the bits and pieces they need to in order to make even greater Z gear for us. But the pressure is on. And it's not just a little pressure, but a lot. 

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