DSLR customers have had a nagging sense that manufacturers were far more interested in having them upgrade their cameras than providing additional capabilities to the customers that already purchased DSLRs. Back in the days of mechanical film cameras, it would have been a challenge for OEMs to deliver upgraded capabilities to existing customers. Customers would have had to bring their equipment into a local shop or send it to the camera manufacturer to be retrofitted with new capabilities – a prospect not very practical or financially attractive for manufacturers or customers. In a digital world, however, enhancing just about any product has become a simple software download and installation process. Thus the idea that any digital product (particularly a sophisticated and expensive one) should remain relatively static over its lifetime has become obsolete. It appears that Nikon may be ready to acknowledge and address this growing concern.
1) Pending Announcement
Rumors are circulating that Nikon is planning a new service, named “I Am Advancing,” which promises to deliver new capabilities (not merely fix bugs) to existing Nikon FX DSLR customers. No doubt Nikon’s decision was influenced by Fuji, which has been going above and beyond the normal firmware updates to provide new functionality to its existing mirrorless customers, and getting high marks for being customer-focused. Thus far, the Nikon D600, D610, D750, D800, D800E, and D810 are listed as potential recipients of such updates. If this rumor turns out to be true, it represents a significant and welcome change in Nikon’s product strategy.
Nikon’s change in strategy may be a sign that, in light of declining sales, digital camera manufacturers are catching on to the fact that smartphones are not just taking sales away from the traditional camera market, they are changing people’s perceptions and expectations what a DSLR should be. No longer should expensive DSLRs be considered static products that receive an obligatory, once-a-year firmware patch to resolve some petty annoyances. If DSLRs are to maintain their niche in the rapidly changing digital camera market, their overall value proposition needs to change.
3) Keeping Pace With A Changing Digital World
Consider the product strategy of the smartphone manufacturers: regular operating system updates, new features, and new application updates on a regular basis (some might say “too many!”). Some of these updates address bugs and issues, but quite a few more add new features and functionality. In other words, smartphone companies provide opportunities for consumers to upgrade and receive additional value from their product investments at no additional charge. This paradigm extends to other lower-than-DSLR priced products as well, such as smart televisions.
People’s perceptions of DSLRs cannot help but be impacted by their experience with other digital products, particularly the ubiquitous smartphone. If my memory serves me correctly, my Samsung and LG intelligent television sets received more software updates in the last few years than my Nikon D800 received. And I spent zero time arguing with Samsung or LG Product Support Managers about left-side focus problems. It was hard not to notice the irony.
Now consider what we have seen regarding firmware upgrades to Nikon’s flagship DSLR products: infrequent and late firmware updates that almost always address nagging bugs and problems, but offered precious little to actually improve the camera’s capabilities. One might think that DSLRs, which range from ~ $500 – $6,800 (not to mention the additional thousands some spend on lenses, flashes, and other accessories), might at least match the value proposition associated with the software upgrade model for smartphones, especially considering that smartphones can cost as little as $0 (with a 2 year contract) to ~$950 (iPhone 6+ without contract).
How can anyone review the average firmware updates they receive for their D800, contrast that to the number of operating system and software updates they receive for their Samsung Galaxy smartphone or Apple iPhone, and not question the disparity? It is surprising that Nikon has not moved faster on this front, especially considering the ominous trends in digital camera sales and rapidly improving smartphone camera technologies.
4) Possible Improvements
No doubt there be limitations to the types of improvements that DSLR software updates are able to address. Whatever can be conceived of by the engineering teams will need to be baked into the hardware, firmware, and APIs (application programming interfaces) when the DSLR is designed and manufactured. You can also bet that Nikon will have some lively internal debates between the Engineering, the Product Marketing, and the Finance teams regarding where they draw the line for future enhancements. That is to be expected and simply part of introducing this type of service.
Customers will download future software updates from Nikon’s new software update webpage (not sure if the new update program will be issued only via the existing firmware upgrade process or Nikon will provide some other capability). How far Nikon can or is willing to stretch this concept remains to be seen. Even with the technical constraints the engineers may need to work within, there is likely a plethora of DSLR capabilities that can be improved without requiring a change in the DSLR’s hardware.
The menu system of some DSLRs might be a subtle, but important aspect of making a camera easier and more useful. DSLRs menu systems have not been winning awards for intuitive user interface design. Even a marginal improvement in the average DSLR menu system would result in a much more positive impression of any DSLR. Additional histograms, white balance controls, picture controls, and new methods of programming routinely-used settings for quick access are just some of the possibilities for future software updates. No doubt Nikon will be inundated with a slew of feature requests, and some of those requests will indeed make their way into Nikon’s new service. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nikon provide incentives for people to submit their suggestions for new features and functionality.
Regardless of how far Nikon is able to push this concept, it will likely see an uptick in brand loyalty result from the strategy. Helping clients get more out of their existing investment is always a solid business strategy. It is also possible that we may see a bifurcation of this service, meaning Nikon might eventually move to a 2-tier model: free upgrades along with fee-based upgrades, depending on the specific nature of the enhancement. I suspect there are many Nikon DSLR owners that would consider paying for a new feature (delivered via a software update) that significantly improved their photography efforts and/or extended the life of their current camera.
I believe that this announcement sends a strong, positive message to the market, and indicates that Nikon is finally embracing both the challenges and the opportunities of the digital age. The “I Am Advancing” program has the potential to help preserve Nikon’s existing customer base, bolster brand loyalty, and enhance Nikon’s value proposition. And perhaps it was just my imagination, but when I shared this news with my D810 this morning, I could have sworn I saw a smile symbol flash across her LCD.
What do you think? Please share thoughts regarding this announcement.