When Will the Dam Break?

Sony 39, Nikon 16.

But that’s not the final score. Another player, Third Party, actually leads the contest.

What am I talking about? Lenses, of course. Specifically, full frame mirrorless lenses. 

Sony did one thing very, very right when they introduced the E-mount many years ago: they opened it to licensing from others. That’s not overly surprising, because at the time Sony had a 25% stake in Tamron, and the combination of Sony/Tamron could produce more lenses for the new mount than Sony could by themselves. For antitrust reasons, if Sony opened the mount to Tamron, they really needed to open it to everyone. (I should note that there are appear to still be some secrets in the communication on the mount, but the basics are disclosed to anyone willing to sign the agreement.)

In essence, Sony triggered what I call Ecosystem Amplification Effect. The bigger the ecosystem surrounding the primary product(s), the more likely the product(s) is(are) successful. Particularly when the competitors go it alone and stay proprietary. 

The natural inclination in Japan has always been to stay proprietary. But that’s also what lost them so many tech categories over the years to other global companies, including computers and smartphones. As I like to say, if you keep playing the same game the same way you should expect to get the same results. 

Which brings us to Nikon. 

Nikon clearly is playing the same game the same way. To my knowledge, they haven’t shared any information about the Z-mount with anyone. They required the third party lens makers to reverse engineer the ever-changing F-mount, and now they’re doing it again with the Z-mount. Proprietary. No Ecosystem Amplification Effect. So instead of close to 100 autofocus lenses from multiple makers as Sony currently can tout, Nikon can just say “16”. With only 6 more known to be coming. 16, 22, it doesn’t matter does it, that’s still far less choice than 100. 

But the proprietary dam broke once before, and it’s getting ready to break again. I’ve now used two Viltrox autofocus lenses on my Z cameras, and they seem to work just fine. So a crack has appeared in the proprietary Z-mount dam. Thus you’re probably wondering when the dam breaks.

Ironically, it’s the old chicken and egg problem. Nikon hasn’t sold enough Z cameras yet to get the true dam breakers—basically Sigma and Tamron—excited. In the end it will all be a numbers game for those two lens makers. They have a basic calculation they go by: what percentage of the installed base would we likely sell to, and is the installed base now big enough that the result would attract our attention? After all, parts shortages are still going on, so you want to put your effort in the highest ROI first. And for mirrorless full frame lenses that would currently be the Sony E-mount, which has a larger base of cameras than the others. And again, Sony's making it easier for the Third Party gang to make their product work in the first place.

It hasn’t actually helped that many of the Z6 II and Z7 II buyers aren’t new buyers, but rather Z6 and Z7 upgraders or extenders (extender example: bought a Z7 body, decided to supplement with a Z6 II body). Thus, while overall unit sales look pretty competitive for Nikon full frame, the actual number of current users isn’t as high as that would suggest.

Still, I think we’re at the point where Sigma and Tamron would actively be pondering the “when” question. I’m also sure that they’ve been experimenting with the mount communications and getting to know those better, as they have to deal with that anyway through the FTZ adapter. Thus, if Nikon can keep any reasonable momentum in the market—and I believe that’s a certainty—the dam will break. We just don’t know when with any specificity. I’d guess 8 months, +/-6 months ;~). 

Which brings us to the question of where the dam will break and how badly. 

Sigma, for instance, has a trio of crop-sensor lenses that would fit nicely with the Z50/Zfc cameras: 16mm, 30mm, 56mm, all f/1.4. Nikon isn’t producing lenses that would be competitive with those, which has to intrigue Sigma, particularly as the Viltrox lenses seem to be getting picked up by a number of Z DX users. Thus, if the Zfc really has kick-started crop-sensor body sales, we might see the dam break over on the smaller end first. 

Tamron, meanwhile, has had good success in full frame mirrorless with their f/2.8 replacement zooms and their telephoto zooms (17-28mm, 28-75mm, 70-180mm, and 150-500mm). Those f/2.8 zooms seem like a logical fit with Z5/Z6 users (lower price than Nikon’s), while the long telephoto is something missing in Nikon’s lineup at the moment. I’m a little surprised that the Tamron 150-500mm wasn’t targeted at the Z mount already, but perhaps Tamron thought Nikon was going to be far faster to market with their 100-400 and 200-600 options. (One of the things holding back DSLR to mirrorless conversion is price of replicating lens sets. Having a less expensive set of zooms available would help that, but again, Nikon doesn’t think that way.)

The frustrating thing for Nikon Z cameras owners, of course, is that they all want the dam to break (soon and completely). They’re wondering why it hasn’t broken already, and they look in envy at the choices in the Sony E-mount while sitting at the foot of the dam waiting for their eventual bath. 

Update: focal lengths for Sigma lenses fixed.

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