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Monday, November 20, 2006

Bill Ford and the Siren Song of the Cash Cow

I first experienced image stabilization (IS) in a pair of binoculars, and I was suitably impressed. I was out on my late Uncle Cam's "stinkpot" (powerboat), watching a sailboat race, and he handed me his then-new Canon IS binoculars. As if by magic, the typical visual jitter of high-power binoculars was eliminated—the magnified image of my cousin Chris's eldest boy, also named Cam and a highly skilled champion sailor, was as steady as if I were seeing him with normal eyesight.

(Note that most companies have their own name for the feature—Nikon's is "VR" for vibration reduction. I'll refer to it here as IS, generically.)

The feature soon made its way into SLRs, also compliments of Canon. I believe the first IS lens was a 75–300mm consumer telephoto zoom, although I'm just going from memory. A couple of years later I remember reading a fascinating insider account of how MITI and the Japanese government brokered a deal essentially forcing Canon to share some of its technology with Nikon. I don't know if that included the IS technology specifically, but I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at that meeting.

Underneath most camera technology of Japanese origin is a complicated web of patents and trade secrets and an equally (if not more) complicated web of nationalistic cultural customs regarding the sharing and trading of those patents and technologies. I'm not privvy to the details of who owns what with regard to image stabilization, but, clearly, the feature is making its way into the mainstream. Several manufacturers have IS-type lenses and there are now a number of digicams sporting some version of the feature.

Some people don't need it much and therefore don't care for it. It's particularly important, however, to my way of working, since I like "available dark" yet don't like tripods; I wrote more about this in my review of the Konica-Minolta 7D in Black & White Photography magazine (U.K.) a few issues back.

Like so many technical issues in digital photography (in my view, anyway), IS is both partly resolved and partly still provisional and subject to change. That it's here to stay is undisputed. Whether in-camera or in-lens variants will continue to co-exist or whether one strategy will eventually win out over the other hasn't been decided yet. Proponents (read "owners and users") of in-lens IS point out that it works better in a long lens than a long lens on an in-the-body IS camera does. The opposite point is just as valid: by making an IS lens out of any lens, the in-the-body scheme is the only way to get IS with many shorter lenses, faster lenses, and most primes.

As I wonder whether "The Big Two," Nikon and Canon, will ever move to in-the-body IS, I'm reminded of a situation from the auto industry. Recently, as you've probably heard, Ford Chairman Bill Ford brought in more new management from outside to help run the company, and, with sales of big SUVs and pickups in the tank due to the high gas price scares of last summer, and losses mounting dramatically, Ford made Draconian cuts to its workforce and closed several plants, and Toyota overtook it as the #2 automaker in the U.S. The funny thing about that is that I distinctly remember an incident in about 1996 or 1997 it must have been, when this selfsame Bill Ford made some derogatory comments about the wastefulness and environmental unfriendliness of his company's largest SUVs and light trucks, suggesting that Ford shouldn't be making them. It was reported as a faux-pas, as if the wet-behind-the-ears young family scion didn't know what he was talking about, and he was reportedly quickly silenced by his money-men, who reminded him not so gently that big SUVs were the company's cash cow.

So how does that look now? If Ford the company had followed the impulse and direction of Ford the chairman back then, it seems to me that Ford would be in much less hot water now—and Bill Ford would be looking like a visionary.

Business is always a minefield, but one recurring motif is that when companies get too wedded to their cash cows, sometimes it misleads them into adopting the wrong strategies. Pentax, for instance, was the leading SLR maker of the 1960s, but it stuck with its trusty M42 screwmount for too long, and the makers of coupled bayonet-mount cameras overtook it. The same thing happened to Olympus when it decided in the mid 1980s not to make the OM system autofocus.

Anyway, my "educated guess" is that Canon and Nikon are happy for the time being to continue to implement IS in their lenses, because they are doubtless making more money off the feature that way. But they must also be nervous, too. Sony has not yet earned the right to make the "Big Two" the "Big Three," but it's got the potential—and it inherited from Konica-Minolta all the patents and implementation experience of in-the-body IS for DSLRs. I imagine there are people inside Nikon and Canon who are advocating that those companies develop in-the-body IS DSLRs, and there are probably other people in both companies telling them to stop rocking the boat because the in-lens versions are turning more profit.

Time will tell who ends up looking like the visionaries.

Photo credit: Bill of the ilk behind the wheel of a not-so-new Ford, from Le Blog Auto.



Blogger Mawz said...

Actually, the first IS camera was a Nikon P&S with VR back in 1994. Canon was first on the scene with IS lenses though.

Also the basic patents for optical stabilization technology are owned by the US Navy, from work in the 1960's. The patents that any camera maker might own will be very implementation-specific.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

My father worked for Chrysler for 30+ years, albeit in the legal department. I remember watching ads with Iacocca bragging about air bags in Chrysler cars--air bags which I knew my father had fought against for years.

The Americna auto industry has been one long series of missed chances for as long as I can remember. For instance, what does GM do with the knowledge it gained from the Saturn project? Basically nothing. Instead of applying it elsewhere, it instead chooses to undermine Saturn.

What does that mean for Canon or for photography in general? Got me. I've read on dpreview that IS is more effective in the lens than in the body at long focal lengths, but that was in the Canon forums. I expect even Canon will have to give in and put IS in the body, but it'll probably be a while.

10:21 AM  
Blogger fivetonsflax said...

I've read there are some issues with in-body IS and full-frame sensors. It makes sense -- you can only move the sensor around inside the image circle if the image circle was designed for a larger sensor.

Perhaps the answer is just to live with some vignetting.

11:36 AM  
Blogger JCdeR said...

In camera anti shake will be much more prone to service related activities. It will be easier to break and misalign etc.

I prefer the lense version

12:40 PM  
Blogger Paul Mc Cann said...

Black & White Photography magazine (U.K.) a few issues back."

Could you date the issue ? I've browsed through their back issues catalogue but cannot find it.

Many thanks

Paul Mc Cann

1:22 PM  
Blogger Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Good points, Mike.
Nik And Can are cutting their throats if they don't implement in-body IS very soon. I was very disappointed the new models did not have it.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Eolake Stobblehouse said...

M, why did your father fight airbags? (I don't mean the corporate ones.)

2:19 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"In camera anti shake will be much more prone to service related activities. It will be easier to break and misalign etc."

I know that this is the "received wisdom" bandied about on amateur forums, but I've seen no objective evidence that this is true. It might be, I just don't think it's something we really know yet.


2:53 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Could you date the issue ? I've browsed through their back issues catalogue but cannot find it."

Sorry, Paul, no idea. I probably have the issue floating around here somewhere but I can't put my hands on it without a search.


3:07 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Nice post Mike. We Europeans, used to $7 dollar a gallon gas prices, have been wondering about the future of those hugely overpowered and oversized SUV's for years...

But to stay on subject, I'm considering treating myself to a DSLR with anti-shake in the body to complement my R-D1, to me it just seems so much more logical to have it in the body instead of the lenses. I used to own a Canon 20d and was impressed with the camera and the image quality, especially in low light, but the current 30d offering, without anti-shake, without a dust removal system, without weather-resistance but with a tunnel-like viewfinder seems rather dated and unattractive considering the specs of the 'coming soon' Pentax K10D. If the low light/high iso performance does not disappoint terribly, that will probably be the camera of choice for me and many other people… I hope that not Sony, but Pentax manages to join the big two in the major league to be honest; the company has such history in photography…

Anyway, Mike, to end where I started, off topic. I know you like Pentax and are familiar with their products, can I ask you a question? Do you have any experience with their 31mm limited lens on a digital body? And if so, do you think it would make for a good standard lens on the K10D?

3:11 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Yet another interesting article. However, I'm most curious about the portrait of Ford. It's a fascinating and quite engaging shot. Can you shed a couple details, Mike?

5:19 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Can you shed a couple details, Mike?"

Wish I could. It came up on a Google image search for "Bill Ford," and it came from a French site called Le Blog Auto. However, I couldn't find the original item it was posted with, so I couldn't even get the photographer's name. I tried, though.


5:50 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Do you have any experience with their 31mm limited lens on a digital body? And if so, do you think it would make for a good standard lens on the K10D?"

Sorry, no experience with that lens on a DSLR. I've heard good things about the combination, though. If I were you I would go on to the PDML forum ( and ask. You are sure to get some replies.


5:54 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Eolake: Chrysler management fought against airbags and other safety features because it would add to the price of each car. In turn this would make their cars less competitive.

If I remember correctly, it was largely because of the bailout that they had to give in. They still fought against it for years.

Back on topic--I just bought a Canon 30D without IS. Like Mike said, I'm not sure if in-body IS will be prone to problems or not, but I'm willing to wait a while to find out. I was really tempted by the K10D, though, and if it had been available last month I might have bought one.

5:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the end I suspect the deciding factor will be which implementation offers the most advantages to the most users, with cost and effectiveness having the most influence. I'm now using a Canon EOS 30D with a 17-55mm f2.8 IS lens, but I would gladly trade either one for something that offered the same advantages (i.e. ergonomics, lens speed, focal length, optical quality) in a smaller, lighter, less expensive package. As long as it was a reputable brand that met those criteria I could not care less whether the IS was in the body or the lens.

9:19 PM  
Blogger yossarian said...

Actually, the phenomenon you are reffering to is long known in all technology-related businesses as "creative destruction". When new technology is introduced, dominant companies usually do not want to sacrifice their cash cow. Therefore, usually introduction of new technology leads to change of the market leader. Such thing happened to Kodak, Minolta, and many others. In comparison, Canon and Nikon managed to keep their dominant market position. They did that suprisingly good, not many companies in other fields managed to keep dominant positions during such fundamental changes.

And IS would be a seriously stupid reason to fail, after steering clear through the migration to digital.

2:52 AM  
Blogger scotth said...

"In camera anti shake will be much more prone to service related activities. It will be easier to break and misalign etc."

Which do you expect to keep longer, a lens or a body. The technology in bodies is currently evolving much faster than in lenses. If the body does break it doesn't much matter if the newer faster model is out and I was going to buy it anyway.

I'm not trying to ride that particular roller coaster, but for someone that is a more robust lens might make more sense.

6:20 AM  
Blogger Dave New said...

As to legal beagles at car companies: Legal departments don't care much for 'safety' devices like airbags, because they don't do much for someone that actually wears their shoulder/seat belt. Unfortunately, the existence of airbags infer that one can avoid serious injury without bothering with belts. Then, when someone DOES get injured in an accident not wearing their belts, who do they sue? (the one with deep pockets, of course 8-). Other technologies like electronic stability control, and backup sensing are also fraught with these legal 'safety system' traps. If someone relies on these features, and still manages to wreck their vehicle, then understandably they wnat to blame someone besides themselves.

As to tech-heavy peripherals vs.
'doing it all in the central unit': This has always been problematic for lots of high-tech device manufacturers. Do you penalize all users of the device by building in a feature, or do you spread the cost amongst the peripheral devices? I'm reminded of the Atari 400/800 computers. The available disk drives were 'smart' devices, containing the floppy controller, etc. in the peripheral case, making them rather expensive compared to others' disk drives (like the Apple II). On the other hand, the Atari 400/800 were much less expensive than a base Apple, which included a lot of non-integrated controllers. At the time, the high cost of the Atari peripherals (compared to the base system) worked heavily against them. If Atari had had the volume and engineering to produce those drives for little to no extra end user cost vs. the Apple drives, the Atari might have been a more compelling small home/office computer solution of the day.

What I'm driving at in the case of Nikon/Canon and their reluctance to put IS in the body, is that at some point it may not make any real difference in the cost of such lenses that contain IS, if the incremental cost continues to asymptotically approach zero. At that point, it no longer becomes an issue to the consumer, and indeed, there may be some real benefits to keeping IS in the lens. For instance, keeping IS in the lens may actually put the mechanism in the most optimal location in the optical path, minimizing all kinds of other problems. It may ultimately prove to be the best solution from a technical viewpoint, then, as well.

10:53 AM  

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