Zooming In: Goings On in the Industry, Early 2013 Edition

Zooming In: Goings On in the Industry, Early 2013 Edition


We are in a paradoxical state in the imaging industry, methinks; on one hand we see the disintegration of so many symbols of what we seemingly forever took for what photography was all about, but we also see the flowering of a new reality pointing us to the future.

I was lucky enough to have been involved in the early stages of the growth of several companies that have become key players in the evolution of the new norm, and to have also worked with or for several that are in decline. Let’s mix past and future together randomly in the paragraphs ahead.

Around the Globe

My old friend Burt Keppler (RIP) once engaged me in a conversation regarding the post-war decline of the hitherto all-powerful German camera makers. I reckoned that American corporate buyers deliberately sought non-German sources and thus built up the Japanese suppliers; Burt thought the German decline was more because of the pre-war exodus of German/Jewish engineers from Hitler’s reach to America and elsewhere. Luckily our industry and its people have evolved to the point that we once again see a revival of the German camera industry, as Leica has regained the pinnacle it once held in 35mm cameras and does now in digital ones. And Japan continues to amaze and impress us with its creativity. The ability to create and make cameras has spread around Asia like a pandemic, with South Korea, Taiwan, China, Thailand, etc., becoming key ingredients in the imaging soup.

Two years ago a Chinese company called Beijing Huaqi Information Digital Technology Co. Ltd. had a big stand at the CES featuring a McLaren Formula 1 racing car (F1 is huge in Europe and Asia); the Beijing company’s camera brand was “aigo,” and they were a major sponsor of that team. At the show they announced their imminent arrival into the U.S. market, with a local HQ in Valencia near Los Angeles. Since then, the aigo logo has disappeared from the race cars.

Another noisemaker at even earlier trade shows (2009) was the Aussie company Memjet, whose founder Kia Silverbrook is Australia’s most prolific inventor. Memjet developed printers with fixed multi-nozzle printheads and promised to be the next big thing in printing. Then the wheels seemed to fall off the cart.

To quote Wikipedia: “In March 2012, the George Kaiser Family Foundation (principal investor in Memjet) filed a lawsuit against Silverbrook and Silverbrook Research, alleging fraud and seeking to gain control of the Memjet patent portfolio, numbering over 4,000 patents. Silverbrook’s response to the lawsuit characterized it as ‘part of a hardball commercial negotiation.’ In May 2012, a settlement was announced under which Memjet acquired control of the technology and Kia Silverbrook remained a special advisor to Memjet. All legal claims were withdrawn. Then Photo Imaging News reported that during Drupa (2012), we learned that one reason Memjet discontinued its development of printers for photo-imaging applications was because paper development to handle the printing speed was not moving fast enough.”

As an outsider looking in, I was always intrigued as to how Memjet would be able to keep the print nozzles clean and unclogged without the self-cleaning oscillating motion that conventional home inkjet printers possess. Or not.

At Home

Crumbs, Carruthers (as the Brits are wont to say), while we’re on the subject of ink and oscillations, we might as well visit Rochester and pat Mr. Perez on the back for dropping a juggler’s ball in the form of retreating from the home printer biz, while promising to keep supplying ink cartridges for those who bought a Kodak inkjet printer in those few bright shiny years that such products existed. My mate Bill Lloyd had fathered those well-reviewed beasties, so I shed a tear for their demise.

Looking ahead, I gaze upon the Lytro universal-focus wonder camera developed by my old chum Dr. Ren Ng, for whom I consulted for all of one month (don’t ask) in the very early days of Refocus Imaging (as it then was called). In those bleak days, camera sensors were too low res to allow Ren to actually put his ideas into practice, but evolution finally intersected with genius and allowed him to offer a well-received camera into the marketplace, at the daunting price of $399.

It might be frustrating for him to see that the biggest selling image-capture devices today are cameraphones, whose lenses are of such short focal lengths as to offer virtually infinite depth of field, thus rendering selective-focus all but irrelevant except for artistic purposes. C’est la guerre.

If there were a Nobel Prize for spotting promising inventions/inventors, I’d now be world famous. (In my dreams!) My next example is one Nick Woodman, founder and CEO of Woodman Labs. I met Woodman years ago, and even visited his parents’ house in Sausalito (with an enviable view of San Francisco). For reasons which escape me, I sort of lost track of him for a year or three, and suddenly he popped back onto my radar by virtue of his company GoPro—one of the smartest makers of sports/action cameras on the planet.

Also for reasons that escape me, most of the rest of the major camera makers fell asleep at the wheel and ignored this market segment until Sony recently put a toe in the water. So far, GoPro has been content to make cameras with fixed-focal-length lenses, but Sony has adopted a different form factor that will allow for zoom or tele-wide lenses (the latter being well-suited to action cams), as has Polaroid (but under whose umbrella? Sakar?).

Talking about not being noticed: have you seen that Hewlett-Packard has not entirely given up its dreams of being a player in the digicam biz? They seem to have inked a deal with VistaQuest (a company made up of a few folks from the original West Coast version of Vivitar) to sell HP cameras made by CRS of Taiwan, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly.

And Across the Globe Again

CRS shrinks into insignificance when compared in size to Taiwan’s two biggest camera makers, Altek and Ability. DigiTimes sees rough waters ahead: “Ability Enterprise and Altek are both expected to see a shipment drop in the third quarter of 2012, affected by demand being replaced by smartphones, weak Europe and the U.S. economies, and Kodak’s bankruptcy, according to the DSC makers. The makers also pointed out they originally expected Panasonic’s acquisition of Sanyo Electric would help DSC brand vendors to shift their orders from Sanyo to them, but the result turns out that Sanyo did not fully phase out its involvement in the DSC ODM market and has even acquired Nikon’s high-end L series DSC orders from Altek, seriously threatening Taiwan-based DSC makers with its strong competitiveness.

“As a result, Taiwan DSC makers are already turning their focus to non-DSC business, with Ability gradually increasing its smartphone camera module production capacity and expects the business to contribute 10% of its total revenues in 2014. As for Altek, the company is turning toward businesses such as car electronics and medical devices with non-DSC businesses already contributed more than 10% of its total revenues and will have a chance to reach 15–20% in the second half.”

Altek admitted that Kodak’s withdrawal from selling digicams is hurting them too; an attempt by Kodak to license its brand to an outside camera-marketing company has yet to bear fruit (as of when I wrote this, but things may change quickly).

Need to buy a bunch of digicams? Log onto Global Sources, search for digital cameras, and lean back and peruse the 5,600-plus products that are on offer. Most are “white-box” cameras from unknown Chinese factories.

Another extreme in the imaging biz is Lomography. The guys behind it are geniuses, GENIUSES! They have taken cr*ppy cameras like the Diana and other plastic “toy” models—which probably sold for a buck FOB when I worked for a far bigger low-end camera maker also in Hong Kong decades ago—and have turned them into $100 retail pieces of nostalgia. The company has a growing community of loyal followers!

Lomography also offers Russian cameras from what my feeble eyes can see. Ah me, how I look back with pleasure at my 1996 visit to the Zenit factory near Moscow; in those pre-Google days the factory was not on any maps because it also made military gear such as tank sights, and it was surrounded by a 10-foot-high wall to keep out prying eyes. Inside those walls was a self-contained town with its own dairy, vegetable farm, etc., to allow them to keep making stuff even if a war disrupted supply lines. Each production-line worker was held individually responsible for quality, and any lapse was traced back to the guilty party and his/her pay was deducted for the oversight!

In an Instant

Any of us with cameras in our blood must surely have a soft spot for Polaroid. What a genius (that word again!) was Edwin Land. So go read about him in the new book, Instant: The Story of Polaroid, just published this past October. Would you believe that I found a diagram of a camera design from 1907 in Brian Coe’s book Cameras that eerily predated the two-mirror lightpath of the SX-70? I did.

While we’re on instant cameras, when Kodak entered that segment, they tried to bypass Polaroid’s patents by having the light enter the print from the back surface, which in turn forced them to use either zero or two mirrors (dooming them to awkward camera shapes), and we at (then) Haking set out to design a simple instant camera for Kodak’s film. Lucky me did the concept creation, so I proposed a top-exit slot, crank drive and a large grip-handle. We made a prototype in balsa wood and took it to that year’s photokina, creating panic at Kodak because I’d almost exactly foreshadowed their top-secret “Handle” camera not due for release until the following PMA show. Heh heh!

photokina Look Back
CNET had interesting comments about photokina: “It was clear a second wave of change is sweeping through the industry. Cameras produced during the first digital photography revolution looked and worked very similarly to their film precursors, but now designers have begun liberating them from the old constraints. Three big developments are pushing the changes: a new class of interchangeable-lens cameras, the arrival of smartphones with wireless networking, and the sudden enthusiasm for full-frame sensors for high-end customers. Sure, plenty of things remain unchanged. A digital SLR looks much the same as a film-era SLR, and it accommodates the same lenses. The rules of focal length, aperture and shutter speed are still in effect.”

But of course the elimination of the 35mm film path has allowed camera designers to become more creative with form factors, but most have not dared to push things too far, too fast. Well, we’ll see!