Understanding Z Product Management

Nikon's back out doing (apparently n-based) registered owner surveys for various models. The first one I was aware of was for the Z5. But I've since learned of others. 

That typically happens between inflection points in Nikon's lineup, and doesn't so much drive user feature requests as figure out what assumptions Nikon about customers understood correctly, and those that they might have missed. 

Which got me thinking about the Z System update speculation that's making noise on the Internet at the moment. It's clear to me from my Japanese and other sources that Nikon has been doing a fair amount of prototyping earlier this year. Seemingly more than usual. At one point I started to doubt some of my better sources because they were feeding me too many models making the rounds. Not all of those prototypes will speak to final products. 

As I've noted before, the gating element for Nikon is image sensors. More importantly, the sensel and chip level technologies being used at the fab. Having too many pixel densities with too many differentiating features that require different on-fab techniques is going to just be too costly in this new era of lower sales volume, I believe. Tweaking known sensors or using off-the-shelf sensors will tend to be more likely than "all new." And "all new" needs to spawn sensors that can be relied upon for a longer period now. 

That Z5 survey, for example, tells us that Nikon is comparing who the customer for the original Z5 was versus what they thought it might be. Almost all of the questions have to deal with understanding more about the customer than the camera. For instance: "Your attitude to the technical aspects of taking photos / videos." A Z5 owner should probably be answering that question differently than a Z7 II owner given how Nikon targeted the two cameras. 

The Z5, of course, is an interesting camera. At US$1400 list price (often discounted), it's Nikon's mirrorless replacement for the D610 (and maybe D750 in some folk's minds), and it is the entry point into full frame. Using the older 24mp sensor with only minor updating, the Z5 has limits on what it can do. Focus, frame rate, and high-end video are the three primary performance factors that are missing from it compared to the also 24mp Z6 II, which uses a newer image sensor and processor. Neither are needed for many types of photography (see list, below). 

I can see Nikon going one of two primary ways with an eventual Z5 II model: (1) make it more attractive to casual/entry users by simplification; or (2) make it step up in performance and ability to where the Z6 was. #1 involves UX changes, while #2 probably requires an image sensor change. 

So once again I find myself contemplating the question of just how many image sensors (and which ones) that Nikon will be using a couple of years down the line. Let's contemplate a full FX lineup and see what happens:

  • Z3 (Z30 vlog style in FX) — 24mp BSI. Probably Z6 sensor to set off from Z30.
  • Z5 II — 24mp BSI. Given above, Z6 sensor again.
  • Z6 III — 33mp BSI. Really needs to be competitive with Sony to gain traction, and also needs to motivate Z6 users to update and stay clear of the Z5 II.
  • Z7 III — ??mp, BSI. ??? 
  • Z8 — 66mp+, BSI. Needs to be the D850 for the mirrorless line, given the existing Z9.
  • Z9 — 45mp stacked BSI. Doesn't need updating in the short term. (But see below.)

You see where the problem in the lineup is: the Z7 III. Somehow it needs to better than a Z7 II while staying between the Z6 III and Z8 in capability and price. I see two possibilities: (1) same sensor as current, or (2) Z9 sensor in crippled function body. Neither of those seem particularly thrilling. The first puts the image sensor chip count at five, the second puts it at four, but the Z9 chip is probably too expensive for the Z7 III price point. (see also "What Does a Z7 III Need?")

Meanwhile, DX really can't financially sustain more than two image sensors, which is what Nikon did with DSLRs at the end of the era. Unfortunately, one of those now needs to be wicked fast with more pixels, which suggests an expensive stacked BSI design. 

Here's my dilemma (and Nikon's): I don't see Nikon being able to truly juggle seven (or more) image sensors with the volume they're targeting, yet I see them needing to introduce additional models to guarantee they'll manage to hit that volume against increased competition. Those things are in conflict with one another, so something has to give. And I should point out that we haven't even contemplated a true video camera yet (and I know Nikon's been seriously tinkering with a design for one). 

One way to work through the conflict is to make sure that every model has distinct customer volume that doesn't steal users from another model. A Z8 better not take away Z7 III volume, for instance. Another way for Nikon to work through this is to let cameras "age out", which is how I think they'll manage their problem. That brings us to the Z5 again. Just don't iterate it yet, or do so mildly. Just as Nikon let the D610 and D750 linger for years with older sensor tech, I suspect the Z5 will follow that path. Likewise, a Z3 could probably squeak by with the same image sensor. A Z7 III could be done with the current image sensor, too, adding things like pixel shift and a more responsive focus.

By using existing image sensors, you take some of the pressure off the part of R&D dealing with those. Under the "age out" scenario, Nikon really only needs three new image sensors: 33mp FX, 66mp FX, and 33mp DX (which can derive from 66mp FX). I believe the 33mp FX choice is likely already known (same as Sony A7 Mark IV). Which leaves us only two new image sensors Nikon has to juggle. 

If we knew Nikon's image sensor choices, we'd know the future model iterations and lineup. 

However, there's one other thing we know: the Big Three will be targeting something special prior to July 11th 2024. That's the kick-off date of the Paris Olympics. I expect a Canon R1 and a Sony A1 Mark II in 2023 some time. I don't think Nikon could be ready with a big change in the pro body, so a Z9 II in late 2023 or early 2024 seems like a solid possibility: tweaking an already excellent camera to stay at the top of the heap. 

This is also where I'm in disagreement with others: I think Nikon also needs a Z8 by then, too (or perhaps a Z90). It's one reason why I say I don't expect another pro body to be announced next: it's a bit too early to make a splash with pre-Olympics marketing. But I do like the thought of heading to Paris with a Z90, Z8, and Z9 II (plus the arsenal of lenses I'm starting to collect). Of course, I'd head to Africa, Alaska, South America, or Yellowstone with that gear, too, and I don't need to wait until July 2024 to do that ;~). So surprise me, Nikon. 

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One thing I always look to when camera companies survey users is how they split up the types of photography that might be done. Nikon's latest survey has the following categories (this is a different and more extended list than their last set of surveys):

  1. Advertising
  2. Architecture
  3. Close up/Macro
  4. Concert
  5. Event
  6. Family/Friends
  7. Fashion
  8. Fine Art
  9. Food
  10. Glamour
  11. Healthcare/Medical
  12. Interiors
  13. Landscape
  14. Model
  15. Myself/Self Portrait
  16. Nature
  17. Night
  18. People
  19. Party
  20. Pets
  21. Portrait
  22. Press/Journalism
  23. Sports
  24. Still Life
  25. Street/Urban
  26. Studio
  27. Travel
  28. Underwater
  29. Wedding
  30. Wildlife

Me, I'm a 3, 5, 13, 16, 17, 21, 22, 23, 27, and 30 photographer. I'm at my happiest with 16, 23, and 30.

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