Coolpix

2007 marks the 10 year anniversary of the Nikon Coolpix.

Coolpix Logo

— Yoshihisa Maitani

To mark the occasion Nikon changed the Coolpix design language, updated its logo and released eight new models at PMA 2007. The question is, will these moves rejuvenate the Coolpix line and reverse its poor comparative performance in the market?

I don’t think so.

From an outsider’s perspective, the Nikon digital story is like the tale of three cities. We’ll start by imagining the Nikon lineup as, well, a line.
Simple Nikon Lineup
L, S and P stand for Life, Style and Performance respectively. The D40, D40x and D80 represent the consumer models. The D2Xs and now-discontinued D2Hs the professional ones. The D200 slots in between the two as the “high amateur” one. While perceived and commercial performance in the middle has improved substantially, the two ends are suffering.

The lower end – i.e. the Coolpix – has always been inconsistent. Unlike Canon’s well-designed and well-received models, Nikon compacts always had a “me too” air about them. They were never as featureful as the competition, performance was ho-hum, the optics didn’t distinguish themselves, handling was ‘OK’… In other words – average. I mean, ask the following:

Does a Coolpix say “Buy Me!“?
No.

Would you enthusiastically recommend a Coolpix?
No.

Do online reviews rate them at the top of their class?
No.

They’re. Just. Boring.

This presents a serious problem for Nikon and explains why they slipped from 5th to 6th place in global compact digital sales and lost share in an expanding market. Apparently a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats.

Other than vague pronouncements along the lines of “address flaws reviewers have highlighted”, “improve processing and optical performance”, “form stronger, more responsive marketing and feedback ties with international subsidiaries” and “Fix It!”, there’s little constructive I can say about the Coolpix line as currently structured. What I can discuss is a market Nikon has long ignored. One that matches its long-standing focus and design direction. That is, the market for a shooter’s compact.

The notion of a shooter’s compact was best outlined in Mike Johnston’s Decisive Moment Digital (DMD) article. The DMD is a compact targeted to those who want the image quality, manual control and reactions of an SLR without its bulk. A compact SLR-owners could carry as the perfect any-moment/every-moment tool. A compact a company can charge a premium for, and whose market cuts across all brand-lines. To date, only the unreleased Sigma DP-1 comes close. Nikon, with its history of working with the APS-C 6MP sensor, extensive in-camera processing (in-camera black and white anyone?) and strong focus on usability would be uniquely placed to capitalize on this niche.

This need for a shooter’s Coolpix was hinted at in an interesting interview with Nobuo Hashimoto, the industrial designer who headed up the S-series redesign. In it there’s a curious blurb:

The digital camera market is dividing in two. Appealing to people on either side of the divide could ultimately mean more fans for Nikon.

Hashimoto goes on to talk about how cameras will divide into “two broad categories”, namely:

  • …authentic cameras with substantial functions for taking beautiful images…
  • …cameras that serve mainly as network tools connectable to large-screen television for image viewing…

Dare I interpret this as a call for stratifying Coolpixes into lineups with markedly different focuses? A serious line with models akin to the beautiful 28Ti and 35Ti of old and another targeted to casual, “Look what I did!” consumers?
Nikon 35Ti

The Nikon 35Ti Quartz Date

Interpretation aside, it’s a pragmatic and long-overdue sentiment. Instead of designing jack-of-all-trades compacts that satisfy neither casual snapshooters nor advanced amateurs, build models that target one or the other. This allows Nikon to field design teams with different focuses and notions of ‘acceptable’ compromises. It’ll also differentiate Coolpixes in a cutthroat marketplace and deliver higher per-unit margins on the shooter’s compacts. Then, hopefully, given a few quarters and iterations, 2007 will be the nadir of Coolpix fortunes.

Will it happen? Don’t know, but I’ll close with a few words from the interview:

To meet the expectations of longtime Nikon fans, it is absolutely necessary for us to produce authentic cameras, as Nikon has always done.

— Nobuo Hashimoto

I concur.

Comments

  1. tcoen - April 27, 2007 @ 16:46

    Arg, I just wrote a well reasoned comment. But because I forgot to include my email address, it was lost forever.

    Summary.

    The name “Coolpix” is cheese. It was in ’98 and still is now. It isn’t known as a strong brand so they should start by getting a decent name.

    The DMD article was interesting, but I don’t agree with everything in the article.

    He’s described a great camera for himself. It’s way too constrained to be widely marketable.

    He says 24mm is perfect for any decisive moment? Hardly. It really depends on the style of shooter.

    Also, he wants only one wheel controlling exposure compensation, with manual controls buried in menus. Accessing controls through menus is exactly what I hate most about p&s cameras.

    Two wheels is the way to go. In manual mode, shutter and aperture. In Av, aperture and EV. In Tv, shutter and EV. In program, EV and program shift. Works great for dSLRs, why not for P&S’s?

    Anyways, the electronic viewfinder interchangable lens designs would provide the small size required by his DMD concept, without the constrictive design.

    They could have small bodies (no mirror box and prism) and the wide angle and normal angle lenses would be small too (especially primes). Plus, they wouldn’t be super-niche designs that manufactureres can’t afford to, or simply won’t make.

    I don’t see Nikon doing anything like this. It would cut into their dSLR business, which is all they’ve got going for them in the camera world.

    Closest they’ve come is the new P5000 to compete with the Canon G series. But these are small sensor zooms.

  2. Allen George - April 27, 2007 @ 17:54

    I don’t have enough time to address all of your points since I have to leave soon, but I’ll do what I can.

    He says 24mm is perfect for any decisive moment? Hardly. It really depends on the style of shooter.

    He’s a street photographer and within reason, the wider the better. So I agree with his choice of focal length. On a more ‘day-to-day’ note, if you start going narrower you’ll lose the ability to take group shots indoors.

    I actually think it’s humorous that you’ve panned the single focal length. The Ricoh GR1, the Contax T2, T3 and the various Rollei’s were all famous as “off-duty” compacts. They were easy to use, highly pocketable, fairly inexpensive and their optics were high-quality. I wouldn’t pan the single focal length market – it exists.

    I agree with you on the two wheels – the GR-D has the same design.

    …the electronic viewfinder interchangable lens designs would provide the small size required by his DMD concept, without the constrictive design.

    Except an extremely high-quality electronic viewfinder isn’t do-able yet. Another major issue with LCD screens and EVFs is their impact on battery life. This is one of the reasons they haven’t taken off in DSLRs. Frankly, the EVIL you’re describing is very close to the M8 and RD-1 – though they’re unavilable at plebeian prices.

    Nikon has never been a good compact manufacturer. It’s not their heritage. That said, I disagree when you say that it would “cut into their DSLR business“. A camera like this can only complement their business. And, interestingly, they’re getting close with the D40.

    Now, if only they could get rid of the flash on the prism hump…

  3. tcoen - April 27, 2007 @ 18:32

    I actually think it’s humorous that you’ve panned the single focal length.

    Sure, but the camera market is currently about volume. Small players have been pushed out. I can’t see such fixed designs as being viable.

    To get prices that are reasonable, there needs to be voume. $5k for a M8, get real.

    Except an extremely high-quality electronic viewfinder isn’t do-able yet.

    I disagree, rather it hasn’t been done. If the budget for the BOM was of the MKII or (gag) M8 range, you’d get a pretty sweet unit. Plus, you’d free up budget since no prism, mirror, etc.

    Another major issue with LCD screens and EVFs is their impact on battery life.

    Historically, yes, but not so much anymore. Look at the XTi and D40, full time LCDs displaying info (although not full-time sensor readout). I have a Sony R1 that does have a live view LCD/EVF. It gets about 5 hours of run-time, getting about the same number of shots as a dSLR.

    they’re getting close with the D40.

    But it’s still an SLR.

    Side note, take a look at this:

    http://www.realpixcamera.com/

    Looks pretty cool. I like how they’ve really targeted a specific market, and made good technology, not marketting, decisions.

    The lack of a review LCD is disappointing. Probably done to keep the BOM costs and development time down. So film age.

  4. Allen George - May 1, 2007 @ 18:52

    …I can’t see such fixed designs as being viable.

    Although I’d like to believe otherwise, you’re probably right. It’s likely this market will be relegated to niche players like Sigma and Ricoh. Although I hope we’re treated as more than a captive audience I’m not holding my breath.

    I don’t think the $5k for a Leica is all about volume. Yes, part of it is. But you’re also paying for the Leica marquee, access to M-mount glass, the rangefinder shooting experience… And Leica owners are a captive audience. On top of which Leica AG has been suffering financially, so they’re probably milking the digital M for all it’s worth.

    You were referring to EVFs when you stated…

    I disagree, rather it hasn’t been done.

    That doesn’t imply that it’s do-able.

    We disagree on this point and one way for us to appreciate what’s possible is to look at broadcast HD camcorders. A quick perusal of Canon, Panasonic and Sony HD camcorders show EVFs with around 250K pixels. So I’d guess that’s where the sweet-spot is component-wise. That said, I think the requirements for viewfinders with DSLRs and video cameras are different and manufacturers err by applying the same criteria to both products. I’ve also other issues with EVFs that I don’t want to go into in this comment.

    …Plus, you’d free up budget since no prism, mirror, etc.

    Unfortunately the prism hump is where SLR AF sensors and metering circuits are located. So, to get those significant benefits you’d have to design alternate:

    • metering
    • AF
    • and a high-quality EVF

    These are not simple redesigns. When Canon surpassed Nikon in the early 90’s in AF performance it took almost a decade for Nikon to match them. Even today when it comes to high-speed accurate AF that functions in a range of contrast and light conditions, there’s no serious competitor to those two.

    You were talking about power draw when you stated…

    …It gets about 5 hours of run-time…

    I’ve never thought of my D70 as having a ‘run time’. Anecdotally I’ve been able to squeeze well over a thousand shots over multiple sessions before the battery runs flat. I’m usually surprised when I’ve to charge it ;)

    That said, I know battery lifetimes have dropped as LCD sizes increased, and hope that a combination of new technologies can combat this. I’m thinking of two in particular – OLEDs and e-Ink.

    The Kodak LS 633 released 2003 had an OLED rear display. It was thinner, with a wider viewing angle, better clarity and lower power draw. Why didn’t it take off?! You could also replace the top LCD with an e-Ink unit, which would reduce power draw when the display is static.

    I took a look at the RealPix. Umm…I’m not sure they made good technology decisions. I think they understand their market though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *