Nikon developing game-changer camera to fight smartphone challenge

Nikon has created a new division to develop cameras competitive with the rise in smartphone photography, as the company watches its compact camera sales shrink in the face of the ubiquitous cellphone. The team – which is working with Nikon's existing imaging division, president Makoto Kimura told Bloomberg – is hoping to "create a product that will change the concept of cameras" Kimura teased.

Exactly what that game-changer might look like is still unclear. "It could be a non-camera consumer product" Kimura suggested, though declined to comment on whether that was a thinly-veiled hint at a Nikon smartphone.

As Kimuro sees it, Nikon's challenge isn't one of making cameras relevant, but of encouraging buyers to pick a Nikon device for their pocket rather than a phone or a small interchangeable-lens model. "The number of people taking snapshots is exploding" the president pointed out. "We've centralized our ideas around cameras but can change our approach to offer products to that bigger market."

It's a much-needed change, given the slump in Nikon's compact camera sales. The company expects sales of compacts to fall 12-percent in the current financial year, though sales of interchangeable-lens models are predicted to increase. Nonetheless, that rise isn't expected to make a significant impact on revenues, which Kimuro concedes could be "a little short" of even Nikon's "fairly low" estimates.

The products cooked up by the new team are expected to be on the market within the next five years, though exactly what they will be is unclear. One possibility is the so-called connected camera, similar to Samsung's Galaxy NX, which pairs an interchangeable-lens camera with the Android OS and an integrated data connection.

Alternatively, Nikon could go the whole hog and push out a full smartphone under its own brand. That would be an ambitious undertaking given the competitive nature of the mobile business today, however; previous attempts by companies to break out of their existing niche, such as by Garmin with its nuvifone line, have generally resulted in failure.

Instead, Nikon might opt to partner with an existing smartphone OEM and offer its imaging expertise for some co-branding. Lens manufacturer Zeiss has, for example, benefited greatly in visibility by working with Nokia on its smartphones.

"Rapid expansion of mobile devices is a change in business environment given to us," Kimura concluded. "Our task going forward is to find an answer to that change."