April 26, 2007 by Allen George
2007 marks the 10 year anniversary of the Nikon Coolpix.
— 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.
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!“?
Would you enthusiastically recommend a Coolpix?
Do online reviews rate them at the top of their class?
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?
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