End of a poorly managed business entity — Olympus Imagining Division

© 2020 Peter Free


27 June 2020



Boohooing over Olympus's proposed departure from the digital camera world is overwrought


The decades-long problem with Olympus's camera division was the flow of its virtually uninterrupted Big Picture Stupidity.



Three times around the block — and not a thing learned


Olympus continually frittered away the genuine photographic 'smallness' excellence that it did have, in favor of hubristic attempts to overcome Physics' constraints upon what petiteness can accomplish.


Olympus history essentially comes in three rounds.


Each round illustrates the same managerial and engineering mistake — the inability to focus on what Olympus did well. Allowing that positive to be (repeatedly) set aside in commercially failed pursuit of what it did not.



Round 1 — Olympus OM film SLRs


Remember when Olympus made small film SLRs and accompanying small and lightweight lenses?


These were advertised to be for people, who did not want to carry around comparatively heavy and indestructible Nikon and Canon F series and their less expensive subordinates.


Olympus's arguably pushed the 'small and light is better' argument into professional territory where it should not have gone.


This thinking, for instance, persuaded United Press International to buy up a whole bunch of Olympus OM bodies and lenses for its professional photojournalist pool.


Olympus happily bragged about the UPI achievement in a June 1979 advertisement. See that, here.



'Take that Nikon and Leica!'



Unfortunately, UPI discovered that Olympus bodies and lenses could not survive serious journalistic use.


The UPI pool returned to using Nikons (as those of us who are elderly recall).


Non-journalist professionals noticed the failed UPI experiment.


Long story short, Olympus OM bodies (and their lenses) went mainly amateur after the UPI episode. In those days, what professionals used mattered to the buying public.


And eventually, Olympus OMs quietly trickled into non-existence.


Canon and Nikon's superiority in the autofocus department was, one infers, too big a hill to overcome in a competition that Olympus had already lost.



Round 2 — digital four thirds


When the digital era rolled in, Olympus adopted Kodak's four-thirds sensor.


Olympus's reasoning was that the smaller sensor was cheaper than APSC and full frame. Presumably, this lower sensor cost would allow the company to capture the less expensive interchangeable lens digital market.


Shortsightedly, it seems not to have occurred to Olympus business folk that sensor costs would race downwards, exactly as computer chips had from year to year.


In short, Olympus had adopted a future-loser sensor for an uninsightful reason. Thereafter, the Imaging Division was stuck.


To make matters worse, Olympus management soon decided not to focus on their future-loser sensor's small-sized physical body advantage.


Instead, Olympus's most capable four thirds bodies quickly began to grow in size and weight.


Caught up in what appears to have been an engineering ego race, the company began producing comparatively too large (and very expensive) fast lenses to go with these new and oversized four thirds bodies.


Overpriced and too big — and trapped with a comparatively ineffective digital sensor — four-thirds, not surprisingly, went extinct.



Round 3 — micro four thirds


With their four thirds experiment now dead, Olympus (with arguably determined foolishness) renamed its four thirds sensor, "micro".


Evidently, the company hoped that no one would recognize that its previous future-loser sensor was identical to its new future-loser sensor.


The lack of sense in this transition soon became clear. Olympus began escalating the size of its micro four thirds bodies. Eventually, some these became even larger than Sony's full frame mirrorless line.


To match that non-competitive silliness, Olympus ego-jumped (again) into producing very expensive f1.2 "pro" lenses.


The f1.2 proposition was evidently intended to make up for some of micro four thirds' lack of blurry bokeh, under most shooting conditions.


So, here we were again, trying to overcome a small sensor's purported deficiencies by adding a technological fix that had no hope of defeating the Physics of Size.


The f1.2 fix could not, under any conceivable set of real world conditions, overcome what larger sensor brands already offered with noticeably cheaper lenses.


Obtusely, and to make certain that everyone recognized this Exact Parallel with the Company Past, Olympus produced its flagship and insanely overpriced (also future-loser sensor-equipped) E-m1x.


Virtually no one bought the X. It cost way too much, compared to professional bodies equipped with far more capable sensors.




Recall the UPI disaster?


Not much had changed.


Don't mess with the Big Guys on Big Guy Ground.



The moral? — Same mistake, repeated thrice


Excessive Olympus ego consistently abandoned, even rejected, its cameras' humbly admirable smallness-based strengths.


Instead, the Olympus Imaging Division favored competing by putting too many resources into producing cameras and lenses that were both too large and too expensive — and too sensor-limited — to appeal to common sense-gifted people.


In view of Olympus's repeatedly failed efforts to compete intelligently, I find it curious that Sony — essentially an electronics and entertainment company — could recognize the virtue in smallness that Olympus had so casually tossed aside.


Witness Sony's successful RX100 series pocket cameras, as well as its new ZV-1.


Notice the compact size of the entire series of Sony's full frame mirrorless bodies.


Olympus has always been, in my view, infuriatingly unwilling to deliver on, and be content with, what it was best suited to doing.


With three such obvious and easily avoidable company history strikes on its record, Olympus Imaging arguably deserves to be out.


A better example of consistently misusing (and misdirecting) a company's admirable engineering talent is difficult to find.