– Thoughts on Strategy and Management

Understand your market or Why I won’t buy a DSLR Sony alpha

OliverRecently I have started to analyse the options to “upgrade” my analogue SLR camera. To be more precisely: to buy a digital SLR camera. Actually that should be a simple decision. We have a Minolta SLR (Dynax 700 SI) that we bought in Canada more than a decade ago. Over time we have added some accessories and by now we own a set of lenses, a battery grip, and a remote control. It is a very reliable camera system, which shots brilliant pictures. To keep it short and simple: nice stuff.

In 2006 KonicaMinolta sold the camera business to Sony Corporation. Since then, Sony is providing customer service. In mid-2006 Sony introduced its “first” DSLR, the “Sony alpha 100”. The big benefit for all former Minolta users: They can use their lenses. A photograph magazine described the situation – taking into account the technical features of the DSLR – “the camera is a no-brainer”.

That sounds fine, but it is not that simple.
Why? Since it is a now a Sony product. Sometimes Sony enters a new product segment very quickly. Sometimes Sony withdraws from this particular market very quickly, too…and leaves you alone with your product.

Do you remember the Cliè–PDA? I have a PEG-TG 50. That is a Sony PDA! A couple of years ago (2003) Sony started to enter the PDA market outside Japan and presented an entire product line of Palm OS PDAs. This website describes Sony’s PDA product line as follows: “Sony has made some of the most innovative and feature-rich Palm OS PDAs. They brought multimedia and expansion slots to the Palm operating system and hardware design before Palm did. …All models have Memory Stick expansion slots and rechargeable Lithium Ion batteries except the SL-10 which uses AAA batteries.”
My own PDA is described with this statement “…released March, 2003. Sony’s first tablet design PDA with a built-in thumb keyboard and integrated flip cover. Palm OS 5, an XScale processor running at 200 MHz, hi-res transreflective display, MP3 and more. It has Bluetooth”

I bought this PDA at the end of 2003. I think the TG50 is (still) an excellent piece of hardware; the display is brilliant and the sound is fine as well. However, I had problems to link the PDA with my mobile phone via Bluetooth in order to send and receive SMS via PDA. It worked well with my “old” mobile phone (T39), but it failed to establish a connection with my V600. The problem was the OS driver. I had to find out that Sony had created an entire product line, but did not consider ensuring connectivity to other devices.

From a strategic point of view Sony was not able to create a customer lock-in, e.g. by convincing other suppliers or makers to support their hardware. As a Clié owner I found myself in a “lock out-position”. Obviously Sony did not analyse customer needs and wants to the end; hence it did not understand, what real customers wanted to do with their PDA. I came to the conclusion that I whould better by a “standard” product (e.g. “standard” PDA from HP) next time.
Let’s go back to the DSLR business. Of course, Sony has experience with digital cameras. But the DSLR market segment is different from Sonys other digital camera business:
DSLR means customers who spend a small fortune to take pictures, who spend money on lenses, flash lights and other accessories. Do you buy accessories for your digital camera? Probably not…since it is not a system camera. Do you buy accessories for your DSLR? Probably yes…since it is an open system that allows you to extend its possibilities. So DSLR buyers want a wide choice of professional accessories.
When Sony introduced the alpha 100 to the market I was confused. The Website showed a nice flash animation, a lot of marketing techno bubble and very few information about accessories. I got the impression that Sony did not understand this business. Today it is a little bit better. The information and the website structure is more technology driven. However, the range of accessories is still limited. I still miss a battery grip, to support portrait format pictures and to extend the battery capacity.

Product range is another strategic issue. Other DSLR makers present an entire product line of DSLR cameras. This approach offers some benefits:

  • They have an entry model that targets the mass market and allows to spread the brand among a large number of customers. 
  • The product range of lenses and accessories can be sold to a large customer group; hence it is possible to achieve economy of scales and to increase turnover. 
  • Furthermore other DSLR makers have a high end model / product that is used by famous photographers. Thus these companies can transfer image and reputation from the top product to the lower end products.

Due to the limited product range and the small “platform” I am not quite sure about Sony and its DSLR business activities. Entering a new market or a new product segment should be done very precisely with an excellent understanding of customers’ needs and wants. You should understand the market…and sometimes it is not possible to transfer a concept from one market to another market, just because some words (“digital camera”) are the same.

It seems to me as if Sony has seen both, the PDA business and the DSLR camera business as just another range of consumer (entertainment) electronics. Hence they applied all their “standard” approaches for business models, marketing, strategies etc. to them and did not realise that PDAs and DSLR cameras are professional products which require different approaches.

By now Sony has withdrawn from the PDA business. You may now understand why I am reluctant to buy a Sony DSLR camera, although I already have all the lenses for it.
How about the Cliè? It is still operating…and is used as a very reliable MP3 player with a huge display.

One Comment

  1. Interesting comments from Oliver,
    I decided to upgrade our Fuji S3 mainly used in our studio for small brochure work. So off I went to see Dennis, our equipment supplier. I kept an open mind, being OK to purchase another system besides our regular Nikon kit. I ended up with three bodies in front of me, Sony Alpha 700, Nikon D300 and Fuji’s S5. Being an old Minolta fan I took a shine to the 700. However, lenses seemed to be the sticking point. The Sony choice wasn’t so hot, Zeiss options nice but pricey and the quality of the last Minolta lenses a bit suspect. Didn’t gel in the end, the whole Sony Minolta package has shrunk from the days when you could but a Rokkor lens to fit virtually any photo need. In the end I settled on the D300 for our studio and for myself, a Canon 40D with a Tamron 2.8 zoom. The price was too good to miss,the 40D and the T zoom both perform well for the money. I think Oliver’s got a point. I really wanted to go Sony but there just wasn’t enough in the their portfolio to make the change. Sad, as I much much hope the Minolta lineage will continue. So let’s hope Sony shake off their corporate bean counter approach and give the DSLR market some real new joy. I’m much in favour of more choice in this market!