When you have to devour yourself to save yourself…

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

When you have to devour yourself to save yourself…


Nikon launched its mirrorless system, the Nikon 1, in 2011. The Nikon 1 cameras used a smaller 1” sensor, instead of an APS-C sensor like the ones in DSLRs or the competing Sony NEX cameras. The 1” sensor was even smaller than the ones found in the Micro Four Thirds mirrorless system.

It’s likely that Nikon chose a smaller sensor to avoid cannibalizing sales of its APS-C DSLR cameras. Masahiko Inoue, group manager, put it this way. “Because our product mix covers full-frame and APS-C DSLR and the Nikon 1 … we’re not seeing cannibalization between the DSLR and the Nikon 1: the customer is completely different.”

It’s business strategy 101: differentiate your products and avoid eating into your own profits. But it didn’t work out for Nikon. According to BCN, which ranks Japanese camera sales, the companies competing for the top three mirrorless spots in the past seven years have been Canon, Olympus, and Sony.

Canon took a different approach. The EOS M launched with an APS-C sensor in 2012, the same sensor as in its DSLR cameras. Canon has been number two in Japan’s mirrorless markets for the past two years (Olympus is number one).

Masahiro Sakata, president of Canon Marketing Japan, identified mirrorless as a ‘growth market’ for Canon. Talking with the Nikkei Asia Review, Sakata said, “[Canon must] actively roll out products for a growth market even if there is some cannibalization.”

Sakata is right, the mirrorless market is a growing one, albeit a growing share of a declining market. According to CIPA (PDF), a total of 121 million digital cameras shipped in 2010. In 2017, only 24 million digital cameras shipped. DSLR shipments have declined from a high of 16 million in 2012 to 7.6 million in 2017.

Mirrorless shipments have risen — slightly. 3,957,000 mirrorless cameras shipped in 2012, while 4,080,000 mirrorless cameras shipped in 2017.

The numbers put cameras manufacturers in an unenviable position. It’s especially precarious for THINK Nikon because its Imaging Products business accounts for most of the company’s revenue. But Nikon has not released a new mirrorless camera since April 2015. In comparison, its competitors have unleashed 40 new mirrorless cameras since Nikon stopped.

Nikon has to make up for lost time. Despite the lack of new products, Nikon has officially stated that it’s still developing mirrorless cameras. Rumors are that Nikon will release at least one new mirrorless camera this year. Plus the new mirrorless cameras will use APS-C or full-frame sensors, not 1” sensors. Nikon might finally be willing to eat itself.

Somewhere in here, there’s a tough lesson, one summed up by the gold case study for disrupting your own products. The iPod was one of Apple’s greatest hits, and arguably the product that made Apple an everyday name. Then Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007. “If you don’t cannibalize yourself,“ Steve Jobs famously said, ”someone else will.” 

By Alvin Soon