A Reverse-Engineered History Of The Camera Business
Eamon's wonderful inside look at the camera industry inspired me to add my own musings to his historical perspective. What I have to say complements it. My connections to the business have been very different from his, so we are fondling different parts of a very large and complicated elephant. Let's wind back the clock about 40 years and run forward.
For the 1960s and most of the '70s there was a vast gulf between professional cameras and amateur cameras. The margins on the professional cameras were considerably better and they conferred prestige on the amateur lines (what Eamon nicely termed the "mindscape"). Their volume was insignificant, though, compared to the amateur market; the price differentials were huge.
In the mid-'70s, Canon got the notion that they could mass-produce a high-quality SLR. Meanwhile, Minolta in a desperate bid to save their failing business decided to invest in truly innovative manufacturing technology. The cost of quality SLRs started plummeting, and Olympus, Pentax, and Nikon followed Canon and Minolta's prescient lead.
In the 1980s, inexpensive, seriously good SLRs became the norm. A substantial fraction of the huge amateur market bought a "real" camera. Boom times for the camera makers! But, as will always happen, the market and the technology matured. That's a really bad thing for sales. When everybody owns a decent, well-made camera and you can't hand them radical improvements every year, your sales projections are gloomy.
Happily for the camera makers there was a new shiny trinket to seduce the consumers—the point-and-shoot camera. Innovative technology and clever design drove sales. In turn, the P&S's drove the technology. Modern compact high-performance optics, electronics, and sensors and control mechanisms owe much of their existence to oft-maligned P&S's. As a class, they were the most sophisticated cameras ever produced.
But that market was also maturing by the end of the last century. What was waiting in the wings to keep the industry rolling? Guess!
The slow roll-up to digital
Electronic/digital photography didn't surprise anybody who understood the technology. It had been developing slowly, steadily, and predictably from at least the early 1970s (I would bet the late 1960s, although I don't have facts to support that). Modern digital camera designs date from no later than 1971, non-chemical printing technology as well. (Side note: I'm talking about commercial/industrial technology here. If you're talking military/espionage, they were and are 20 years ahead of the curve. But that technology almost never trickles down to consumer products.)
The first digital camera prototypes (much cruder than the farsighted paper designs) appeared mid-'70s. By the early '80s, Kodak was hinting that photofinishing was going hybrid and by the mid-'80s, primitive consumer electronic photography products started appearing. Indeed, around 1994 a Fuji rep even asked me if I thought she should be giving up her film camera. I told her, correctly, that digital was indeed the wave of the future but that the wave was made of molasses and it was still January.
It took about three decades for digital photography to slouch all the way to Bethlehem. Then it got a big kick in the pants from an entirely predictable event that few planned for. The dot-bomb. Everybody remember The New Economy? Sorry—meet the new boss, same as the old boss. And we will get fooled again, because it's in our nature to want to believe that the streets are paved with gold and money will grow on trees.
The dot-bomb was more of a disaster for the consumer/electronics industry than outsiders know. We're still in recovery mode: the economic metrics don't reflect how badly those businesses were hurt. The scale of the collapse was so huge that (contrary to some popular assumption) terrorist attacks produced only barely a visible blip in the curves.
Paradoxically, that was just the break digital photography needed; it was not quite ready for prime-time, price/performance-wise. Still, it was close and manufacturers were now in desperate straits. They could not wait for the normal transition to the next wave of shiny consumer-lust-inducing baubles. Like Minolta, decades earlier, they needed to gamble and force the market or they were going to die of starvation for sure.
That's when (and why) camera prices started plummeting and the performance/price ratio started rising even faster than it did for home computers. Manufacturers drove down prices aggressively, almost suicidally. They rolled out new models long before the old ones had paid off their investment. This was consumer pump-priming on a desperate scale, and it worked to our benefit. That long, ponderous 30-year swell suddenly hit the uncharted reef of May, 2000 and slowly but irresistibly broke into a perfect wave. With a speed that couldn't have been sensibly predicted pre-dot-bomb, it drowned film photography (and several companies) and it floated whole rafts of new products and services.
We're still riding the wave today and it's a wild trip. I'm kind of wondering, though. What's in the cards when this market matures? It will, you know, and then the industry will have to move on to the Next Great Thing. I wonder what that will be?
Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: "It's fun to make predictions. But it's more fun to see past predictions. Rochester Institute of Technology has preserved a page of predictions made by several renowned photographers of the day and published in a 1944 issue of Popular Photography. With this being at the end of WWII there is a recurring 'post-war' perspective. Have fun!"
Mike adds: I'm impressed by Eliot Elisofon! Film never miniaturized as much as he predicted, and, in color negative film, dye clouds merely replaced the light-sensitive silver halide layers. But he correctly predicted the explosion of photographic education in the 1970s, and perhaps we can grant that his "built-in lens turret" is the zoom lens, in effect if not in execution. Pretty impressive predictions.