Monday, September 15, 2014

With the FS7, Sony finally learns to cannibalize itself

At the International Broadcasting Conference in Amsterdam, broadcasting equipment companies announce new products, and often ship the new products they announced at NAB in April. For example, Panasonic showed near-production versions of its Varicam 35 that was announced at NAB, as did AJA with its CION camera. Sony, on the other hand, showed a new camera whose existence started to be rumored only a few weeks before IBC. The PXW-FS7 (referred to by most people as the FS7) is a Super 35 4K camera that fits in price between Sony's FS700 and F5, but is functionally superior to the F5 in many ways. It uses the full XAVC codec and records 10-bit 4:2:2 UHD 4K at up to 60 fps and 600Mbps (Digital Cinema 4K will be supported in a firmware upgrade scheduled for early 2015,) but it uses Sony's XQD flash media, which costs substantially less than the SxS Pro+ flash media used by the F5.

It's got built-in ND filters, and it natively accepts Sony's E-mount lenses; Sony announced a new professional power zoom 28-135mm F4 lens to go along with the FS7. An A-mount adapter is available, and of course, third-party adapters that connect a variety of mounts to A- or E-mounts will also work. It's got a standard grip control that puts many of the camera's most important controls on a hand grip. An optional extension unit enables the FS7 to record using Apple's ProRes 422 codec, outputs raw 12-bit 4K video that can be recorded by external Sony and Convergent Design recorders, and supports industry-standard batteries. The FS7 will be somewhat heavier that AJA's CION; the FS7 weighs 4.5kg without the extension unit that it needs to be functionally comparable to the CION, while the CION weighs 3.4kg. Both cameras are lightweights compared with Blackmagic Design's URSA, which weighs 7.4kg.

What makes the FS7 so worthy of discussion is that a number of observers have noted that it's in many ways a better camera than Sony's F5, for less money. The F5 sells for $16,490 (U.S.) at B&H, and that's without a viewfinder or lens. The FS7 will sell for $7,999 at Adorama ($10,499 with 28-135mm lens.) Introducing a new product that competes directly with another Sony product for less money was, until now, considered heresy. Sony took extraordinary pains to make sure that its products didn't directly compete with each other, except when the company was deliberately obsoleting an older product. In this case, however, Sony says that the FS7 will replace neither the FS700, which B&H sells for $7.699 and which the FS7 blows out of the water, nor the F5, which the FS7 compares very well to for about half the price.

Sony's no-competition policy dates back to when Sony was the undisputed technological and market leader in cameras. Any cannibalization of Sony's own products was seen as unnecessarily leaving money on the table. However, first Panasonic and then Canon showed that they could build cameras that could compete very well with Sony's offerings. Panasonic in particular was largely unconcerned if its cameras cannibalized its other models, and both Panasonic and Canon were happy to take sales away from Sony. Blackmagic Design showed that it can't yet design or build cameras to Canon's, Panasonic's or Sony's standards, but it introduced price competition into a business that hadn't seen much of it. That brought in AJA, which looks like it's learned from Blackmagic's mistakes and will combine high-end performance with aggressive pricing.

Sony's in a new world. It's now got competitors that are its technological equal and are willing to accept a lower gross margin on their sales. Sony has finally figured out that it's better to cannibalize yourself and keep the revenues, rather than let your competitors cannibalize you and take the revenues. Sony's going to let its customers tell it if the FS7 replaces either the FS700 or F5. The older products will stay in Sony's product lines until sales fall off sufficiently to make one or both unprofitable to continue to offer.

With the FS7, Sony is finally doing what many observers and customers hoped that it would do decades ago, Time will tell if the FS7 is a one-time fluke or the first product in a new strategic commitment.

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