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Will the Sony Alpha succeed?

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Will the Sony Alpha succeed?

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June 5, 2006

Editorial Sony's marketing machine has been working overtime creating buzz for the soon-to-be-released (perhaps a soon as this week) Alpha, the company's first SLR. The official company line is that Sony is taking this camera very seriously, with the goal of capturing a significant chunk of the DSLR market, which is dominated by Canon and Nikon, respectively. Sony hopes to fill the gap left when Konica Minolta quit the camera business, and then some.

We know a few things about this camera: It will be called the Alpha 100. It will have a Minolta lens mount and will take Minolta-compatible flash. It will probably have internal image stabilization. And there are rumors floating around the Internet about a 10MP sensor.

Will Sony succeed in the rapidly-changing DSLR marketplace? There are many factors at work, both for and against Sony.

In Sony's favor:
  • The Minolta mount is alive and well: Maxxum users (film and digital) can buy new bodies for their old lenses. There are over 16 million such lenses in use today.
  • Sony owns Minolta assets: When Konica Minolta got out of the biz, it transferred a factory and a substantial part of its camera design team to Sony.
  • Sony is a big company: Unlike KM, Sony has the financial resources, distribution pipeline and marketing know-how to bring products to market quickly and let the world know about it.
  • Brand name: Sony's name is often associated with innovations, such as the Walkman and Handycam. In fact one of the Sony engineers who was involved in developing the first Handycam camcorder is heading up the Alpha division.
  • Sony makes its own sensors: They don't need to buy sensors from a third party (as Minolta did, and many camera makers do now) which allows them to bring home-grown, cutting-edge imaging technology to the market before the competition. Look at the 10.3MP APS-C sized sensor on the Cyber-shot R1 as a glowing success story.

Factors against Sony:
  • Sony makes its own sensors: Remember last year, when some Sony sensors--which Sony had sold for use in almost every major camera maker's compact cameras--turned out to have been made with inferior seals and started to fail in humid climates? A big black eye right there. Sony can't let this happen again.
  • Memory Sticks: More expensive, and not an industry standard, Memory Sticks are proprietary Sony technology. If Sony makes this the Alpha'sonly storage medium and don't use an industry standard like Compact Flash, a lot of potential customers may lose interest.
  • Trust: After Sony's music division put copyright security software in its music CDs last year that crippled users' computers--which caused consumer outrage and boycotts which lasted for months--there is a significant number of consumers who simply don't trust them. Sony will need to establish trust among photographers.
  • Sony never made a film camera: In fact, many photographers still resent Sony's self-fulfilling "film is dead" ad campaign. The question is, does this lack of a film tradition matter any more?
The big unknown factor is, of course, the Sony Alpha 100 itself: Will it have innovative features, or simply be a reboxed Maxxum 7 Digital (an impressive camera in its on right)? I'm guessing it will go well beyond the Minolta cameras, if for no other reason that Sony will likely make a higher-resolution sensor for it.

Will the Alpha 100 be priced right? It needs to be under $1,000 and be somewhere between the Nikon D50 and Canon Rebel Xt, and the Nikon D70s and Canon 30D in feature set to catch the interest of core DSLR enthusiasts. A 10MP sensor, if the rumors are correct, would be a good start.

Sony has said it intends to be a serious player and has the traditions of the DSLR in mind. That's good news for camera consumers, because competition drives innovation and innovation drives even more competition, resulting in better cameras for you.

We'll soon see if Sony has capitalized on its substantial starting advantages, or has produced another in a series of liabilities.


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