Friday, December 09, 2011

Rifles vs. shotguns: The GoPro advantage

The rule over the years for camera and camcorder manufacturers has been to make a model for every need and every price point. Canon, Nikon, Sony and Panasonic sell everything from inexpensive point & shoots to DSLRs. All but Nikon do the same with camcorders--prices run from around $100 for YouTube-focused models to upwards of $100,000 for digital cinema cameras.

The "model for every purpose and every pocket" approach means that, as a manufacturer, you won't miss a sale because you don't have a model that a customer can afford or can use, but it has some significant downsides. One is that it's expensive to develop new camera designs, both in terms of money and time. Canon's new C300 digital cinema camera took two years to develop, and that was considered a "fast track" project that required adapting the electronics from an older camcorder design in order to meet its deadline. In addition, as development budgets get strained, it's necessary to "milk" designs by releasing cameras that are minor variations on each other. Not to pick on Canon again, but the T2i, 60D and T3i DSLRs are very similar to each other, with minor differences in areas such as LCD mountings and video settings.

There's another side-effect of having so many models--features are deliberately left out of some lower-priced models in order to avoid cannibalizing sales of more-expensive ones. Sony is famous for this; for example, a big reason that the FS100 only has a HDMI output instead of HD-SDI is to avoid cannibalizing sales of the F3 camcorder. There's no technical reason why the FS100 can't have HD-SDI--the less-expensive Panasonic AF-100 has it, and it was introduced a year before the FS100.

Some companies practice another approach--build a limited number of models (or even a single model) of camera or camcorder, with a very specific target market or application. That brings us to GoPro, a camcorder company based in Half Moon Bay, California. GoPro only sells two models: The HD Hero and the new HD Hero2. Physically, the two cameras are almost identical to each other, but the Hero2 has improved electronics and optics. There's about $60-$70 difference between the two models, and none of them sell for more than $300. According to company founder Nick Woodman, GoPro initially built ruggedized cameras for use by surfers and skiers, but they were designed to be used by two people--one to surf or ski, and the other to shoot the action. Woodman's revelation, and the core principle behind everything that GoPro sells, is that athletes want to take video or still pictures of themselves in the act, or from their point of view. That meant that GoPro's cameras needed to not only be ruggedized--they had to be tiny, operate automatically, and be mountable just about anywhere.

GoPro sells a suite of mounting kits that allow its cameras to be mounted anywhere from the exterior of a race car to a surfboard. The company has a library of incredible footage shot underwater, on skydivers, mountain bikes, snow skis, skateboards, even as the payload for a weather balloon at the edge of space. It also has accessories to make the cameras easier to aim, extend their battery lives, transmit their video via Wi-Fi and gang two cameras together for 3D video. Yet all of it is based on the same camera design, for the same fundamental application.

I was amazed by how crowded the GoPro booth was at the NAB conference last April. This is a under-$300 camera, yet broadcast professionals were packed into the booth. GoPro's cameras are used for shooting the contestants' points of view on reality game shows, for recording experiments on Discovery's "Mythbusters", and for use almost anywhere danger is involved. Two thoughts went through my mind:

  • Someone is going to buy Woodman Labs, the parent of GoPro, and
  • Surely one of the big Japanese camera or camcorder makers will jump into the market.
I certainly hope that Woodman Labs isn't sold--the scariest example of what could happen is what happened when Cisco acquired Flip Digital. Before the acquisition, Flip was the leader in the market for inexpensive, simple-to-use camcorders. Earlier this year, due both to competition from smartphones and mismanagement, Cisco shut down Flip completely. Whenever a big company buys a small, focused company, it's usually the small company that suffers. As for the second possibility, a Japanese competitor could try to copy GoPro's ideas, but they'll stumble on their need to be all things to all people. To build a viable competitor, you need to understand GoPro's markets and applications as well as GoPro does, and that's hard when you're also trying to build cameras for every possible market and application.

Had GoPro tried to enter the general-purpose camera or camcorder markets, it would have had its head handed to it. Instead, it dominates the point-of-view market, which it can effectively defend. There's a lesson there, not just for other small companies but for the big camera makers as well. It may be time to focus on a few markets instead of trying to compete in all of them.

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