Olympus recently announced the sale of their camera division, bringing an end to the storied company's history, at least in the iteration that we know. Does that mean the end of micro four thirds along with it?
Do you remember much about computers in 2008? Back then, Sony Vaios were some of the coolest laptops and desktops out there. They were absolutely beautiful and often innovative, though admittedly expensive. Still, though, they were experimental, they pushed boundaries, and they made many geeks (myself included) often drool over them. In fact, if you are not familiar with the old Vaio line, you should check out this photo essay, as you might be surprised by just how neat those computers were.
Unfortunately, a product being innovative and desirable does not always translate to sales. In 2014, Sony sold the Vaio line to Japan Industrial Partners (the same company that is set to acquire Olympus' camera division), and six years later, only one model remains, the SX14. It is a shame — not that JIP had any obligation to continue the Vaio line's past history. In fact, that would probably be a bad idea, given that they acquired the line due to its lack of success in the first place.
Micro Four Thirds
Back in 2008, when the micro four thirds system was released by Olympus and Panasonic, the camera world was a different place. You could generally draw a straight line from point and shoot through to digital medium format, one without many gaps and with a roughly direct correspondence between price and sensor size: small sensors, micro four thirds, APS-C, full frame, medium format. However, something else was on the horizon that would drastically alter the camera industry and break that chain of continuous correspondence.
Just the year before, the first iPhone had been released, and the seeds of the smartphone camera revolution were planted. Digital camera sales would peak over the next couple of years before beginning a precipitous drop over the next decade, dropping almost 90% by the end of the decade. That left the industry in a very different place. The main victim of the smartphone revolution was the point and shoot, which was replaced by the smartphone, as most casual consumers simply wanted a device for capturing memories, and the convenience, simplicity, and connectivity of smartphones outweighed whatever image quality gains could be had by moving up to a point and shoot, and indeed, today, many smartphones meet or even exceed lower-level point and shoots.
This left the world of dedicated cameras for enthusiasts and professionals, who have different needs and desires than the casual consumer. This separated the various sensor sizes into different purposes and groups: medium format for upper-end studio photographers, full frame as the standard for most professionals and dedicated enthusiasts, APS-C as an alternative for professionals and a popular choice for enthusiasts, and micro four thirds for a wide range of enthusiasts and a few professionals, especially a portion of video shooters.
In recent years, APS-C has been making huge strides, spurred on by Fuji's highly popular and respected X Series of cameras. APS-C's role in the industry has expanded in both directions: as quality lens offerings have expanded, sensor performance has improved notably, and bodies have gained professional features, more and more photographers have embraced the format's size and cost as a fantastic alternative to full frame. On the other end, budget offerings have continued to expand and have often encroached on the price territory of micro four thirds. The other draw was that there was often some degree of cross-compatibility with a company's full frame mount, giving users an upgrade route if they so desired.
In the meantime, Panasonic has pushed into the full frame mirrorless market and joined the L-Mount Alliance with Leica and Sigma. And they wasted no time getting serious about it with the S1 and S1R. And the great video capabilities of those cameras left a question lingering: what was Panasonic planning to do with their micro four thirds cameras, which are mostly known for their usage in videography? And then came the S1H, which now offers 6K raw video, making it one of the leading consumer-level video-oriented cameras. Its arrival only underscored that aforementioned question all the more. Maintaining two lens mounts simultaneously is not a cheap proposition, and in an industry continually feeling the pressure of shrinking demand, they might decide it is more prudent for them to focus their attention on a single mount, and given their recent entrance into L-Mount Alliance and fast development of their full frame system, the likely winner of such a head-to-head matchup would be full frame.
What does Japan Industrial Partners plan to do with Olympus? They may have a strong transition services agreement in place with Olympus if they intend to continue business as usual. In a statement on the events, Olympus said:
JIP is a strong investment fund with a track record of success and has maximized the growth of many brands. JIP will use the innovative technologies and solid brand position of Olympus within the market, while also improving the profit structure of Olympus’s imaging business.
Of course, that could mean a wide range of things. "Improving the profit structure" can mean drastically shrinking development and offerings, or it could mean revamping the lineup, or it could mean selling off the company's assets and intellectual property. It remains to be seen. However, after the imaging division reported losses of almost $100 million during the fiscal year ending in March of this year, it's clear that it is going to take drastic action of some sort to right the ship.
It certainly seems that the micro four thirds system is at a bit of a crossroads, with one company in the system focusing on the development and deployment of their own full frame system in tandem with two other companies and the other being sold, all against the backdrop of an industry moving increasingly toward a niche status for enthusiasts and professionals. If nothing else, I certainly hope that we will see Olympus' innovation make it into other cameras in the future if the company and micro four thirds don't survive.
Where do you see micro four thirds going?