Wednesday, 6 August 2008

The Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds Standards

Olympus and Panasonic have just announced the Micro Four Thirds Standard. It's obvious that this is a significant milestone in the evolution of the digital camera. To the extent that Phil Askey penned a short commentary when reporting the announcement.

What's so significant?

  1. Commercially, the Four Thirds Standard and the Micro Four Thirds Standard had to come from companies that did not have a strong vested interest in keeping pre-digital legacy lens mounts, lens catalogues.
  2. Although it is not clear to me whether the Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds Standard is truly Open Standard (as in Intellectual Property, free availability of engineering specs), these "Standards" are purposely declared to be available so that other companies do not have to reverse engineer the electronic and mechanical interfaces. I don't know what it costs financially to gain a ticket to these Open Standards for a would be manufacturer, but it is, shall we say, not specifically a closed door.
  3. The significance is that there is a possibility that Kodak + Panasonic supply a sensor, Olympus and Panasonic (maybe others will join) that supply more than one body, Olympus, Panasonic, Leica, Sigma, maybe Schneider Kreuznach can supply Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds lenses.

    If any other brand can supply just one thing - either a sensor or a body or a lens, the empire and diversity of parts to mix and match will grow. If nobody wants to join the club, then this is just another proprietary, locked in, dead end idea.

  4. The aim of the Four Thirds Standard is to make a smaller DSLR body and lens for the same telephoto magnification. The aim of the Micro Four Thirds Standard is to make a camera smaller than a DSLR and grow up the bridge prosumer camera to a larger sensor. This means you have one sensor size and in the long term, two lens systems, the longer one being useable on the shorter one.
  5. It is difficult to do this in the shoes of the Big Two - Canon and Nikon - they are committed to
    1. the 24x36mm sensor size (requiring true full frame lenses)
    2. the APS-C sensor size (another lens system)
    3. if they want to independently create a Micro Four Thirds competitor, they have to come out with a short flange lens mount. (yet another lens system)

That's three lens systems they have to support and grow. If they decide to mount their full frame lenses on the APS-C sensor body, they don't enjoy any reduction in package bulk or size.

  1. The Micro Four Thirds Standard can use :
    1. "legacy" Four Thirds Lenses that already exist, in autofocus and body image stabiliser mode. Thus scarcity of lenses is not as much an issue. True, the compactness of the Micro Four Thirds camera body with a Four Thirds lens would not be pretty, but you have a lens that may auto-focus, image stabilise and with no crop factor or magnification change.
    2. legacy manual focus lenses for various brands - Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax K, M42 - already exist for the Four Thirds bodies, then the Micro Four Thirds Standard will also fit those with the relevant adaptors.
    3. with enough reverse engineering, will and skill, current competitor autofocus lens systems in autofocus mode - since the flange distance will be shorter than any DSLR lens mount.
  2. The purchasing public has long asked for an EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lens) alternative to the DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) with an OVF (Optical View Finder). There have been some prototypes and navel gazes but at the end of the day, the following cause some concern:
    1. How do you establish a commercially viable line of new lenses for the system?
    2. Who will expend resources and costs on initiating the proprietary lens system?
    3. At the end of the day, what is the ROI (Return of Investment) on such a venture, given that traditionally camera companies "own" the mount and thus other companies will be reluctant to support it.
    4. How will the pricing and price categorisation be viable given that that EVIL has to compete against the so called Bridge Prosumer Cameras and the entry level DSLRs - a very "hot" price level with lower volume sales than the USD 100 compact.
  3. The camera body makers can choose to:
    1. make expensive Micro Four Thirds bodies
    2. make cheaper Micro Four Thirds bodies
    3. make bulky Micro Four Thirds bodies
    4. make more compact Micro Four Thirds bodies
    5. incorporate optical rangefinder mechanisms
    6. incorporate Electronic Viewfinder in addition to an LCD screen
    7. simply just have only an LCD or OLED screen.

Not every Micro Four Thirds Body and not every Micro Four Thirds Lens has to be tiny. This is a Standard / System. You can Mix and Match! Build them good, let them come.

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