Canon should start using a software platform approach to effectively manage their line up of DSLRs

I love Canon cameras, I really do and have been for a long time. My current DSLR, a Canon 7D is fantastic, worth every penny and I use it a lot (see my photos on Flickr).

Lately I have been lost with Canon’s DSLR line up in terms of feature planning and their capability to update software. How come a 800USD camera is with some key camera features as good or better than a 1700USD or 2400USD camera? I was intrigued and determined to find some of the root causes…

Let me first explain Canons naming and numbering system for the DSLR line up. It is simple and straight forward, no issues there:

  • Canon ###D: entry DSLRs. Price < 1000 USD. Highest number equals latest release (e.i. a Canon 550D is newer (and better) than a Canon 500D.
  • Canon ##D: prosumer DSLRs, somewhere between the professional and entry range. Price 1000 – 1300 USD. Highest number is the latest.
  • Canon #D: professional range. Price > 1700. The lower the number the better. Canon 1D being the best of the best. Canon reuses numbers by simply adding Mark ## after the number. So Canon 5D Mark II is the second incarnation of  of the 5D.

With such a simple brand architecture you would say nothing can go wrong. Consumers get it, a Canon 550D (800 USD) can do less than a Canon 7D (1700USD) and a Canon 7D can do less than a Canon 5D (2400USD). Simple as that, all nicely reflected in pricing as well.

So what goes wrong?

Root cause 1: portfolio planning

At a first glance from a hardware point of view everything is reasonably solid. The 550D is not water ‘proof’, the 7D is. The 50D has a smaller sensor than the 5D and the 1D can shoot an enormous amount of pictures per second.

There are some issues though that interfere with this clear brand system: both the Canon 7D and 550D have a new autofocus system. An autofocus system is to cameras is what an engine is to car. It is core. To me something so core to imaging quality would have made sense to start from a 1D/5D and propagate down the line very fast. This tells me that Canon plans its cameras very loosely connected from each other. A very rigid and holistic roadmapping approach would have not allowed for this to happen. Another example in the current line up is the Canon 7D that has two processors while the 5D Mark II still has one… All this takes away the clarity from the clear brand architecture of Canon because consumers get confused (“how come a 7D is in some cases better than a 5D?”.

Root cause 2: Cameras are planned very much individually with each camera having their own life cycles without having the ability to easily update software across the portfolio

Here is the problem: in order to compete in the low end with Nikon and Sony more features are added and the life cycles are shorter. Unfortunately Canon is not able to bring these features to the high end cameras immediately through a software update. The hardware planning cycles interfere with the software cycles which brings me to root cause 3.

Root cause 3: the camera software is very tightly integrated (read custom made?) to the camera hardware not allowing for fast software updates and feature changes.

Canon announced the 7D in November. One of the big things was HD recording in 24p, something 5D Mark II owners were waiting for… It took 5 months to add the ability to record movies in 24p to a Canon 5D while the 7D and 550D are shipping with the feature. That does not amake sense, unless software is really developed on a camera by camera base not allowing to make changes across the board very fast.

What to do?

With cameras becoming more and more like computers Canon will need to make the transition to a company that understands software platforms. That way features can be managed across the portfolio, not on a camera by camera base. In a world of consumers who are used to software updates Canon must enable quick updates that allow expensive cameras to be on par with the cheaper later released cousins.

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