What If Apple Bought Nikon?

What If Apple Bought Nikon?

It’s a transaction that makes zero financial sense for Apple, but the possibilities of this thought experiment would be dreamy.

After years of revenue decline and a corresponding drop in its stock price, Nikon is reportedly in “dire straits” as a result of a COVID-19-related slump in camera sales that affected the entire industry. Much has been written about the stubbornly slow rollout of their ILP-based Z system, bizarre product launches like their Df camera, and complete failures like their DL compact series. And of course, all those factors pale in comparison to the rise of the smartphone.

Despite a continuously shrinking market since 2013, consumers still purchased about 8 million digital still cameras with an interchangeable lens in 2019 (by contrast, Apple sold some 185 million iPhones during the same period), and I optimistically believe that the post-COVID world will generate a rise in travel and consumerism that will boost camera sales. The vast majority of smartphones users will never purchase a dedicated camera, but smartphones are still a gateway for others.

In the past decade, the Big Three (Sony, Canon, and Nikon) have innovated with the mirrorless technology, autofocus tracking, and sensor resolution, but they’ve mostly shunned the computational/programmable approach taken by the smartphone manufacturers. The Zeiss ZX1 uses a modified Android operating system, but it’s secret weapon is apparently Adobe Lightroom packaged in an expensive, fixed-lens paperweight of a camera.

With inherent size constraints, smartphone manufacturers continue to push the limits of technology with folded lens optics connected to tiny sensors – relying on software to stack their way to better image quality.  Consumer desire for different focal lengths or creative choices has given way to a cottage industry of third party clip on lenses, but at the end of the day, it’s hard to beat dedicated optics and a larger sensor housed in an ergonomic package.

Which brings us back to Nikon. Nikon is a comparatively small company compared to Sony and Canon, and its market share has declined into the teens (by contrast, Canon owns 48% of the market share). It’s highly unlikely that any combination of new features – from 8K video to more megapixels – would dramatically alter their tenuous position. Like any technology company struggling to stay afloat, the choice is to pivot or die an ignominious death.

Simultaneously, after a decade of designing their own A-series chips for iPhone and iPad, Apple released its much heralded M1 chip – a blazingly fast ARM-based system-on-a-chip (SoC) that some analysts believe can be produced at 1/5th of the cost of the Intel chips used in previous generation Macs. Photo industry SoC’s like Expeed and Bionz simply can’t compare to the Apple’s engineering resources, supply chain expertise, and unit cost.

So imagine a Nikon camera with a Z-mount built on iOS powered by Apple Silicon. Throw on a LiDAR sensor. Autofocus algorithms like face tracking could be easily replaced with third party variants. Computational capabilities like HDR, noise reduction, and image stabilization could make a Nikon/Apple camera unique in the photo ecosystem. Airdrop could provide a near-immediate back-up of images. The iPhone could seamlessly act as a hotspot to eliminate the need for the camera to double as a phone. An app ecosystem could easily build in functionality like “Holy Grail” intervalometers, astrophotography guides, remote photography and more. The UI would adopt an iOS or MacOS design language – ridding us of an arcane 20-year old menu system. The availability of a USB-C port and software programmability could give rise to a whole ecosystem of interesting add-ons. I think it’s a camera that a lot of people would be excited about.

Plus, it’s a defensible market position. Apple’s closed ecosystem has shielded it from the self-inflicted pains of planet Android. So it would be much harder for Sony and Canon to follow suit in such a bold way. In the meantime, Canon has filed a patent for an Osmo-style gimbal with interchangeable lenses that is reminiscent of Sony’s QX-100. Canon and Sony are in a better position to innovate.

Apple currently holds nearly $200 billion in cash. Nikon’s market cap is around $2.25 billion, so the acquisition would be a drop in the bucket. That said, the deal makes zero sense for Apple – a company that’s interested in emerging technologies like AI or features with broad consumer appeal (e.g. DarkSky). Apple has almost nothing to gain by an acquisition, but a partnership or joint venture might allow it to test a third party market for Apple Silicon. After all, if Apple Silicon is better and cheaper than Intel for the next decade, then imagine Amazon EC2 clusters filled with their chips. It’s a potentially huge revenue opportunity.

If 2021 is destined to be a year of great economic recovery and resurgence of human spirit, then let a guy dream! As a photography lover and long-time Nikon user, I can’t think of a more exciting roadmap for the beleaguered camera manufacturer. An acquisition might be pure fantasy, but it makes more sense right now than it probably ever will.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 5 comments for this article
  1. Nat at 8:17 am

    I honestly believe some version of this will be the future. I think it’s ridiculous that smart phone camera software and DSLR hardware haven’t already combined more. I cannot understand the disconnect especially when cameras are losing so many sales. Seriously someone explain to me why the big camera companies seem to have worse camera software than a smartphone. Is it because they’re still relying more on hardware? I really don’t get the lag.
    We live in a world where a smartphone camera can take pictures that are almost equal and in some ways better (faster shooting, MP, waterproofing, effects) than a dedicated camera. That absurdity is why cameras are losing sales. Would you pay hundreds to thousands of dollars for an extra object when you could get the equivalent in with your phone? Also perhaps as phone tech is able to get smaller these companies could find room to incorporate bigger sensors in phones to improve image quality to the point that it’s only photographers who need specific lenses/ really like their buttons not getting their needs met there.

    • Pavlos H at 12:51 pm

      What I could see is computational photography options that would be standard in the consumer line (D3500-D5500), optional in the enthusiast and above though well documented. Point being, pros are going to want to do their own post processing which is all the most computational photography is. There may be exceptions for this like HDR and in camera panorama.

      Personally I think Apple acquiring Nikon would be a good move to both as it would give Apple a new product line – next level photography. Anyone who’s ever looked at even a basic iPhone 12 Pro image will see all the “computational” photography smudging used to blend away imperfections. If you combined better optics and sensor IQ that smudge factor will go down in a DX/FX sized sensor. Of all the brands Nikon makes the most sense to acquire.

  2. Pavlos H at 1:04 pm

    I could see is computational photography options that would be standard in the consumer line (D3500-D5500. Z30/Z50), and optional in the enthusiast and above though well documented and integrated into the UI.

    Point being, pros are going to want to do their own post processing which is all that most computational photography is. There may be exceptions for this like HDR and in camera panorama. Maybe features like star trails and long exposure in camera stacking. Even then, shooting JPG already does a lot of that for the entry level people care of post processing applied at the time the JPG is taken. While some computational no-how is a must it can’t be the default option for pros, and should be able to be disabled in any camera for those that want to shoot RAW.

    Perhaps even a RAW format that stores all that data for later post processing on a dedicated rig…

    Personally I think Apple acquiring Nikon would be a good move to both as it would give Apple a new product line – next level photography. Anyone who’s ever looked at simple daylight image from a top of the line iPhone 12 image will see all the “computational” photography smudging used to blend away imperfections. If you combined better optics and sensor IQ that smudge factor will go down in a DX/FX sized sensor. Of all the brands Nikon makes the most sense to acquire and open Apple’s photography market to the next level. The spur to innovation would be massive as Nikon, arguable the most dedicated photography company, would finally have really deep pockets to innovate.

    Case in point, Sony/Canon play tricks like detecting eye AF in a subject at a range where DoF no longer matters (eye and face are both in focus based on the equations for DoF). Nikon knows that but to placate the “so called pro photographers” of Youtube they added it in the latest Z6ii firmware (namely to placate the Tony Northrups and Jared Polins who seem to be like flies to a candle for eye-AF at 20 meters and ignore the science of optics re DoF)

    As for the Df, it was a salute to the old F3MA film days. Basically what Fuji fans love. Overall it is a very popular item that has held onto its value like no other digital camera. Even though it may have not sold well it sold well among the INTENDED population it was made for.

    PS – Nikon and Canon were both slow. Nikon lacks the budget to take off like Canon though. Nikon execs have already said they were holding back on mirrorless until the tech was able to get a CIPA rating that was closer to some DSLRs (600-700) and lower latencies for sensor lag and blackout. While a DSLR has balckout it’s hard to beat the speed of light in terms of “delay” 😉

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