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Rumors say Nikon's acquiring Samsung camera tech: We say win-win

Commentary: Rumors circulating around the Web indicate that Nikon will acquire, or has already acquired, Samsung's NX camera technology. That's both a good idea and a necessity for both companies.

Samsung's Myoungsup Han at the launch of Samsung's flagship NX1 at Photokina in September 2014.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Rumors have been flying since September: Samsung's exiting the camera business, it reassigned the NX camera staff elsewhere in the company, it told salespeople in some countries that the NX1 had been discontinued (see summary at Petapixel). I generally pay little attention to rumors, but I strongly believe that this latest one is likely true. No confirmations, either on or off the record, just a variety of pieces coming together in my head.

And I hope it's true. Because this is one case where the sum would definitely be greater than its parts, especially if the deal includes:

  • Nikon buying its 1-inch and APS-C sensors from Samsung, and working with them to develop a full frame (if they haven't already)
  • Nikon purchasing the intellectual property for the NX system technology
  • Nikon using Samsung's NX lens production line

Samsung, which dropped out of the dSLR business years ago, has had a hard time making inroads in a mirrorless market dominated by Sony's A series and Micro Four Thirds-mount partners Olympus and Panasonic. Toss in Canon and Nikon if you consider interchangeable-lens models as a whole, which would include dSLRs.

In the stagnant and shrinking camera market, there just isn't enough room for too many players, and a huge, diversified company like Samsung doesn't really have a financial incentive to keep plugging away like "The Little Engine that Could" for not a lot of reward.

It's kind of sad, because Samsung makes excellent, leading edge-cameras; the NX1 is one of my favorites. But people are legitimately reticent to buy into a system with a "new" lens mount. When launching their mirrorless lines, all the other players immediately introduced adapters so that people could use their existing dSLR-mount Canon, Sony, Olympus and Panasonic lenses. But Samsung never had that avenue to fall back on, since its dSLRs didn't have much of an installed base or breadth of lenses.

Nikon, on the other hand, has a solid presence in the camera market, both from a market and a mindshare perspective and across market segments from entry-level to professional. But its dSLRs sales are sinking. And unfortunately, in the popular mirrorless category, it misstepped. The Nikon 1 series has its charms, but with a 1-inch sensor, tiny lens mount without a small selection of meh lenses and relatively high prices, it really doesn't have much of a future, and almost completely lacks appeal for professionals.

Also, while Nikon has improved its cameras' video capabilities, it doesn't have anywhere near the expertise that Samsung does -- that company was making camcorders before they were digital -- though Samsung never had a big presence in anything but the cheap models. It has been implementing current-standard 4K in its cameras, though, something HD-only Nikon needs to catch up with.

Nikon also lacks a sensor business, unlike Canon and Sony, which makes it more difficult for the company to drive the technology direction. Though many of Canon's sensors tend to rate below competitors with respect to dynamic range (check out any of them on dxomark.com), owning the biz likely helped to facilitate the development and implemention of its on-chip autofocus technology.

The result of a deal like this would be an inflow of revenue and big cost cuts for Samsung, at the same time giving Nikon all the pieces it needs to fix its mirrorless strategy really quickly.

One of the most difficult changes in camera technology when shifting to mirrorless from a dSLR is the flange-back distance: the distance from the sensor to the lens mount is a lot smaller in a mirrorless than in a dSLR, which requires a big mirror mechanism between the two. That requires redesigning lenses, which takes time; time that Nikon really doesn't have.

There's an Olympics in 2016, and Canon and Nikon traditionally make big pro pushes for that. Sports shooters still use a lot of dSLRs, but a lot of them like the smaller mirrorless bodies, which are great for shooting video and a lot more convenient in many situations. I think Nikon probably needs to have a mirrorless for these photographers, if it hasn't already lost them. This deal would make it possible to ramp up quickly enough for that; the NX1 is already fast and weather sealed, and I could see Nikon bringing it up to speed, so to speak, plus Samsung already has some very nice, pro-quality NX-mount lenses to match.

One potential obstacle to making it work, though, is that Nikon would have to get over any worries it might have that a great mirrorless camera might erode its dSLR sales. Because they will. And that's a good thing. dSLRs still have their place -- optical viewfinders are hard to let go of -- but mirrorless models have tons of advantages, including offering more compact systems. (Unless you're Leica.)

When Sony bought Konica-Minolta in 2006, it used that technology to power its entree in the dSLR business. The rest is history. (On the other hand, the more recent Ricoh-Pentax acquisition hasn't seemed to have made any waves.) I think a deal like this could be just as important for Nikon. Whether it would be as successful remains to be seen.