Imagine a world of no brands — no Wal-Mart, Google, HSBC, or Canon. Is that the sort of world we would want to inhabit?
For example, think about being able to walk down your local high street looking for a restaurant to eat in. There is no McDonalds, no Byrons, no Five Guys, no Pizza Express, Giraffe, Prezzo, or Itsu. Instead you see Hot Wok, Burger in Time, Taste of Italy, Leo's and ten other individually owned establishments. In fact, if you stepped back a century in time that might well have been the culinary landscape you were faced with — all independent, every one different offering you a diversity of choice, price, and quality. In contrast, today’s high street is dominated by big chain restaurants and whilst sole traders obviously exist in large numbers, the populace like the consistency of a brand. Perhaps they even like the fact that there is less choice, that they feel more comfortable in the belief that they have an individual relationship with the brand, that they can sample their favorite dishes in Hull, Houston or Le Harve. Brand shopping is the same — you are paying for that reliable relationship, even if Cheap-As-Chips ketchup is made in exactly the same factory as Big-Brand ketchup.
What would the photographic landscape be like if there were no big brand camera manufacturers? Is this what it was like at the birth of photography, perhaps around 1850-1900? Was there a rapid rise in hardware businesses, funded by a profligate company investment sector that innovated rapidly, brought new products to market quickly and, in the same breath, disappeared beneath the waves if their product, price or, marketing wasn't up to scratch. Was this a period of dramatic technical change where designers continually built upon what preceded, safe in the knowledge that it was always going to be high-risk so… there was nothing to lose in going all-out!
If we transposed that market to now, what would it look like? Well, my gut instinct is that it might not be too dissimilar to the current smartphone sector. Yes, we have the Samsungs and Apples dominating the Western marketplace, but all eyes are looking east to India and China. They are a vast market and the sheer number of companies and devices being manufactured, particularly in China, is breathtaking. The IT press call these generic devices "China phones" as they are no-brand, big on features and low on price. Spinning up a new manufacturing run is easy when you have so many integrators and capacity all in close proximity to one another. Of course, R&D is expensive and, well maybe we aren't seeing the innovation. But let's wait for that market to mature a little more.
And the photographic sector? Well, to be honest, I'm bored with it. For me, the most exciting products in recent years have been the smartphone, Google Glass and GoPro. Integrators using existing technology in new and exciting ways. Perhaps I'd just squeeze the mirrorless camera in here too. But the mainstream camera market? Dull. And, well, maybe that's how we like it — incremental change, rather than disruptive innovation. Does the iPhone change my photography? No. Can it have a dramatic impact for the guy-on-the-street? Absolutely.
Which is why I'm so excited by the DJI Zenmuse X7. Technologically it is a 24MP APS-C body, so nothing super exciting there. But it is built from the ground up to be as small and light as possible — a new lens mount with a 16.8mm flange distance supports carbon fibre lenses — it’s an integrated part of the drone. For the aerial imaging sector it marks a game changing move by a drone company.
In stark contrast, I like the fact that I've bought into the simplicity and reliability of the Nikon F-mount that allows me to use lenses all the way back to 1959. I can be safe in the knowledge that things will just work, with any F-mount lens: a standard. Innovation comes at a price, just ask those that paid to move from Nikon or Canon to Fuji. If those tectonic shifts afford you a competitive, technical or artistic advantage then maybe we should be celebrating innovation and change. Long live the startup and I'll drink to that at my local Weatherspoons!