Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale,
a tale of a fateful slip
that happened to three companies
who thought they were so hip...
In Part 1, we focused on Pentax, Olympus, Nikon, and Minolta, respectively, as the first companies to introduce production auto focus (AF) 35mm SLRs in the early to mid-1980s. Although Pentax was the first-mover (1981), and Olympus & Nikon followed two years later, it was not until the introduction of the trendsetting Minolta 7000 in February 1985 that the AF SLR truly came of age. This was borne out by the other three manufacturers' abrupt decision to adopt Minolta's idea of AF motor-in-body (MIB) design, abandoning their previous allegiance to the motor-in-lens (MIL) philosophy. These companies' next AF SLRs bore an uncanny resemblance to the all-conquering 7000, at least in the lens mount area ;-). Minolta appeared poised to dominate SLR sales for the foreseeable future, yet within three years, they would be toppled from the peak and by the time the early-'90s rolled around, they would be back in their familiar third-place sales position that they had held from the early-'70s onward. So, even being the first successful AF SLR manufacturer was no guarantee of being the long-term winner. How could that happen? This time, we will take a closer look at the reaction to the AF revolution by the then-biggest fish in the SLR pond.
Canon - From Domination to Disappointment
From the introduction of the AE-1 in 1976, Canon had distanced itself from the remaining four members of what was called the Big 5 (the remainder of which was made up of our four friends mentioned above) when it came to market share and sales. By 1984, they owned a third of the SLR market, free and clear. Even so, they had also been feeling the effects of the downturn in SLR sales due to market saturation and the meteoric rise in popularity of compact fully-automatic AF cameras (which they had no qualms about cashing in on with their very successful Sure Shot/Auto Boy lineup). But Canon felt that there was still a market that they could exploit with an SLR that did virtually everything for the user...including focusing. Cue the T80.
The T80 was the third model to debut of Canon T-series of SLRs, in April 1985. (A critical date in relation to the Minolta 7000. Hold that thought :-)). It had been preceded by the T50 (March 1983), the baby of the T-lineup, which was the most heavily automated Canon SLR to that point, offering Program-only exposure, and automatic film winding. However, it failed to arrest the sales slide in the consumer market because it lacked the now-vital (for consumers) feature of AF. From a snapshooter's perspective, why bother with a manual focus (MF) SLR (even if it did almost everything else automatically), when you could get a more compact camera that did the focusing for you to boot? So it was back to the drawing board for Canon. Meanwhile, Canon knew as well as anyone that enthusiasts were what really formed the backbone of the SLR market. So they could not be neglected. The T70 (April 1984) was Canon's replacement for the AE-1 Program, which had been one of their most successful models. It brought all of the '80s touches: a big top-deck LCD display, integrated film winding, a larger grip (to contain the winder motor and batteries); and last but not least, loads of black (well...more like charcoal, in this case) plastique ;-). But the T70 did nothing to address Canon's intense desire to get SLRs into the hands of non-enthusiast shooters. What they had been wanting to build was basically a T50 with AF. But that took time to develop, as we have previously seen. The dual flops of the Pentax ME F & Oly OM-30/OM F, and the inaccessibility of the Nikon F3AF to anyone of average means, had given Canon pause. They had to come up with something that would be within the grasp of the average consumer. Thus the delay in the T80's debut.
Canon was just as much in the dark as the other Japanese manufacturers as to the development of Minolta's Alpha AF system. Very early in 1985, Canon was feeling quite optimistic about the T80. They had three AF lenses (designated AC, with internal motors) covering 35-70mm, 50mm, and 75-200mm, which was a more well-rounded initial offering than Pentax, Olympus or Nikon had managed. The camera and lenses were also coming in at a more realistic price point for the average Joe, although it was still higher than they would have liked (definitely a bit above equivalent MF levels). But the biggest problem for Canon would prove to be timing. Really bad timing.
Remember "hold that thought"? We have already noted that the Minolta 7000 came out in February 1985 and that happened to be two months earlier than the T80. So right there, Canon was in trouble. The trouble only deepened because of the frame of reference the 7000 provided. Although Canon had four more years of development time than Pentax, they had not been able to improve on the 4 EV low-light limit for AF (Exposure Value - a combination value of aperture and shutter speed at a given ISO; the less light there is, the lower the EV; each drop in EV means half the amount of light is available), and they had also chosen contrast-detect AF as their method (like Pentax) with its limitations (hunting back-and-forth, and lack of speed). The 7000 simply blew the T80 into the weeds (2 EV low-light limit and fast, positive phase-detect AF). Even though it was priced and aimed at the enthusiast-level, the performance of the Minolta prompted many consumers to open their wallets a little wider. The initial selection of a dozen lenses didn't hurt either (which rose to 26 in less than three years), and they lived in the same price range as their MF counterparts. The T80 was an unmitigated disaster for Canon. The 7000 had more performance and was more flexible (it could be set up to act as a reasonable facsimile of a point-and-shoot AF camera, but also offered more control for more-advanced users). How would they respond?
Stumbling Block or Stepping Stone
Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax, were faced with a major decision in the early spring of '85. How to counter the masterstroke of Minolta? All four had heretofore been committed to the idea of the motor-in-lens configuration, both Pentax and Canon had pursued the contrast-detect method of AF, and they had all worked on AF with their existing lens-mounts (Canon FD, Nikon F, Olympus OM, and Pentax KA, respectively). Minolta had went with: motor-in-body lens drive, phase-detect AF, and had bitten the bullet and boldly decided to introduce a completely new lens mount that had zero backward-compatibility with their two-and-a-half decade-old SR-mount. As noted before, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax all abandoned MIL for MIB, Pentax ditched contrast-detect, and they basically raced to match (read: copy) Minolta's lens-drive system (albeit with their existing lens mounts). You could almost sense a bit of panic with Nikon & Pentax. Which made Canon's reaction all the more fascinating.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, bear in mind the two month-gap between the introductions of the 7000 and the T80. February and April. Such was the success of the Minolta that only one month after it was introduced, in March 1985, Canon made a critical decision:
“a highly-refined AF SLR model deserving Canon’s name should be developed with the target market release date of March 1, 1987, the year of Canon’s 50th anniversary.”
Translation: the T80 was DOA (dead-on-arrival). Canon had seen the future and had given themselves 24 months to not just match Minolta, but to try and regain the status of preeminent purveyor of SLRs that had been theirs for almost a decade. There was no sign of panic. This led to some very interesting engineering choices on their part, which we will explore in greater detail below.
First though, why could Canon take such a measured approach? Here are a couple of reasons (this is by no means exhaustive :-)).
These factors had a definite impact on Canon's new approach to AF. Their new EOS cameras were developed with three basic guidelines:
Tying all of this together was Canon's ethos of allowing plenty of room for future development of the EOS (Electro Optical System). This led to their most consequential decision: they would completely abandon further FD-mount development in favor of a brand-new electronically-controlled mount they named EF (Electro Focus). Not only would focusing be completely electronic, so would aperture actuation, and all transfer of information from the camera body to the lens and vice-versa. In this they surpassed Minolta, who had retained mechanical aperture actuation (as would Nikon and Pentax for the next 25 years). Canon also designed the EF mount with eight electrical contacts, although these were not all needed at the time, leaving room for future innovations such as image-stabilization. The brand new mount also featured the largest throat diameter (54mm) of any mount then on the market, which would allow Canon to pursue more ambitious lens designs in the coming years. Canon also felt that MIL was inherently superior to MIB and so they retained that feature, and used the two-year gestation period for EOS to develop new motor technologies that would allow them to overcome the previous bulkiness of such designs. Banished forever would be the lopsided appendages known as the AC lenses ;-).
Canon also learned from Minolta to target the enthusiast first, then go downmarket. Instead of presenting the new EOS 650 as a camera for rank consumers (as the T80 had been) Canon aimed wider and higher, giving the camera capability fit for an enthusiast, but with the ability to be configured for point-and-shoot ease of use for those not interested in going any further. Then they followed up a year later with their low-end full-on consumer EOS models.
On schedule, Canon introduced the EOS 650 in March 1987 with six lenses and expanded the lens lineup to fourteen by the end of the year (three years later this figure had risen to 26, matching Minolta's initial pace, and Canon was soon to leave them in the dust). Two months after the EOS 650 debuted, they brought the more advanced EOS 620 (basically a 650 with a better shutter, exposure bracketing, shiftable program, multiple exposures, and illuminated LCD). In summary, a much more comprehensive rollout than the T80's had been. The result? Within two months the EOS 650 was the best-selling AF SLR in Japan and Europe and Canon was on its way back to the top. They had been the fourth manufacturer to join the AF club, but they would go on to be by far the most successful. This was due in large part to the potential they chose to build into the EF mount. By starting fresh, they were at the beginning of a new development curve, instead of being on the downhill side, trying to modify mounts that were nearly three decades old (like Nikon with the F-mount, or even Canon's own FD (1971), which had descended from the FL (1965), which, in turn, was a modified R-mount (1959)).
It would be remiss to fail to acknowledge the backlash that Canon initially received, mostly from professionals who had invested heavily in Canon's FD system, when they obsoleted the FD mount. However, that was a risk they were more than willing to take, seeing as they were fully aware of Nikon's dominance of that section of the market. From the introduction of their F-1 in 1971, Canon had been unable to grab much more than 20% of the pro market with their FD-based pro SLRs. Canon saw AF as their best chance yet to finally catch and hopefully surpass Nikon once and for all in the pro ranks. Their gamble paid off. They more than compensated for the loss of a few thousand disgruntled F-1-wielding pros in the next decade by steadily taking market share from Nikon through the 1990s. The advantages of Canon's powerful and near-silent USM lens motors, especially when used in the big telephotos and wide-aperture zooms favored by sports and wildlife photographers, were undeniable to almost everyone (due to their own intransigence, Nikon didn't come up for an equivalent to Canon's USM for ten years). Canon was the first to introduce image stabilization to SLR lenses (Nikon was only five years behind this time, even though they had brought Vibration Reduction to market in a compact camera a year prior to Canon's first IS SLR lens). Nikon's failure or inability to adapt this technology to their interchangeable lenses was more galling since they had known, from at least 1988, when Canon started showing a prototype at trade shows, that Canon was pursuing IS. Nikon did solidify their grip on second place in the SLR kingdom during this time, but they never were able to threaten Canon's steadily tightening grasp of the market.
Ironically, Minolta had faced far less resistance to its change of lens mount, probably due to the fact that they had a far smaller representation among professionals with their SR system, and they had brought their pro-level 9000 AF to market just ten months after the debut of the 7000. This actually gave Minolta their best pro presence in years, but it was one that quickly evaporated as they failed to follow it up sufficiently (not introducing a successor for seven years), especially in the face of the Canon EOS-1 series, post-1989. Minolta's case is kind of sad. After such a promising start, and absolute domination of AF SLR sales for two years, the denouement came rather quickly. The EOS 650 was a match for the 7000 in specifications, and its AF was just plain faster, too. Minolta's immense success had also caught the attention of the Honeywell Corporation, who had pioneered the development of phase-detect AF systems, but had basically washed its hands in the early '80s, not wanting to devote further resources without more investment from the Japanese manufacturers. So, Minolta and the others proceeded on by themselves. In 1987, Honeywell sued Minolta for infringement of four patents and royalties. The case was finally settled in 1992, with Minolta being found guilty of infringing two patents (though not intentionally), and Honeywell being paid $127.5 million USD. (Nikon settled with Honeywell for $45 million USD in short order, as well, while not admitting any guilt.) Quite a few heads rolled at Minolta as a result and the financial blow staggered them.
A second haymaker was self-inflicted. Minolta gambled big on Kodak's last gasp at a new film format to try and breathe life into the consumer film market one last time. Introduced in 1996, the Advanced Photo System (APS) allowed users to choose between three different aspect ratios in-camera and also allowed for mid-roll film changes without losing any frames. Against the well-entrenched 35mm market, APS never got a decent foothold. Of all the participating camera manufacturers, Minolta was by far the biggest proponent (doing the majority of the initial development in league with Kodak), introducing the first APS SLR and a full line of compacts (hmmm, what was that term, again?...Oh yeah...first-mover :-)). Aligning themselves so closely with Kodak (which had been going downhill slowly for over a decade) at that point and time was a poor decision to say the least. The financial consequences were beyond Minolta's already-weakened position to bear for much longer. But it was not only strategic missteps that hastened Minolta's demise. Less-than-optimal technical decisions had been made in the original development of the Alpha AF system, and the consequences continued to make themselves felt through the final decade of Minolta's life.
To start with, while MIB lens drive enabled Minolta to get off to a fast start, there were some drawbacks. First, it was noisy, which became especially apparent when Canon's quiet USM motors became available on more-affordable lenses in the early-'90s. Second, lens AF speed was directly proportional to how powerful the motor was in the body. When it came to small primes and standard zooms, there was little to no difference in AF speed, but when there were heavier lens groups to be moved (e.g. in big teles and zooms), that's where the limitations of MIB became apparent. Also, a more powerful motor would be more expensive, and all three members of the MIB brigade put less powerful motors in their lower-end models. This obviously affected AF performance, and it was hoped would push people into upgrading to a higher-end model, which is what any camera manufacturer really wants. Minolta, Nikon, and Pentax, were just less subtle than Canon in this particular case. Don't get the idea that Canon adopted MIL drive for altruistic reasons, it was all about performance ;-). Nevertheless, you could slap a 300/2.8 USM IS on a cheapo Rebel G and the lens would physically focus as fast as if it were on an EOS-1 (leaving aside that the AF sensor in the EOS-1 would be superior, and that would affect AF performance, too). Once Canon quieted down the EOS Elan (aka EOS 100) to previously-unheard-of (sorry, couldn't resist ;-)) levels for an automatic winding SLR, the noise of Minolta's AF drive (along with the other MIBers) was even more apparent. By the early-2000s, Minolta finally started making lenses with internal ring-shaped motors (they called theirs SSM, which Sony still uses today) begrudgingly admitting that Canon's concept was superior (read: faster & quieter). Along with retaining mechanical aperture actuation, and initially only using five electrical contacts (they went to eight in 1991, starting with the 7xi), Minolta failed to prepare for future advances for the A-mount to the level that Canon did with the EF-mount. This would eventually cause some minor compatibility issues with new lenses on older bodies and vice versa. But Minolta was far better off than Nikon and Pentax when it came to this :-). Canon had the luxury of learning from Minolta's mistakes, something the early-mover forfeits.
A critical technical error for Minolta was their avarice with their second-generation AF bodies. The designs were all-new, and incorporated some incredible technology. The 7000i brought the first multiple-sensor AF array to SLRs, predictive AF, built-in AF-aid light, more speed, better ergonomics, an innovative flash shoe that was both more secure and easier to use than the old ISO design that has managed somehow to survive to this day. Technology-wise they still were right in the thick of things, although Canon and Nikon had closed the gap considerably. Unfortunately, in their desire for more profit (and possibly, expecting what was going to come down in the Honeywell lawsuit) Minolta started to handicap their own SLRs. They tried to sell it under the guise of user-customization, but it was really a ruse to get people to pay more to access features already physically built-in to their camera bodies but that needed to be unlocked. Meant to capitalize on the public's fascination with computers and disks, Creative Expansion Cards were like electronic keys that enabled access to different features such as: Sports Action, Close-Up, Portrait, Fantasy-Effect, Automatic Depth Control, Automatic Program Shift, Highlight/Shadow Control, and Custom Functions (this was by far the most useful card of the bunch). For many enthusiasts, this was a major turnoff, and a major boon for Canon (who introduced in-body Custom Functions with their EOS 630) and the other manufacturers, who quickly followed suit. Canon did get in to the gimmicky programming of its SLRs for a moment with a bar-code reader on the EOS 10, but you at least only had to pay for it once ($10), and all it really did was to make adjustments to the program exposure mode in the camera (only neophytes needed to apply). Minolta finally ditched the CEC system with its fourth-gen AF models, but they had long since thrown away their initial AF market advantage. Too bad, because they still built some great SLRs right up to the end.
Finally, we come to the original AF mover, Pentax. Without the resources of Canon and starting from a technological position even further behind when the Minolta 7000 appeared, it really shouldn't have come as a shock that they slipped farther and farther behind. Having slid to last position in 35mm camera sales among the Big 5 by the mid-'70s (with a 9% market share), they stayed there (in 1995 it was 8%), even with the failure of Olympus' late-'80s half-hearted stab at their second-gen AF SLRs. Time became Pentax' greatest enemy. Nikon's ability to get a decent AF SLR to market in April 1986 gave them almost a year to battle it out with Minolta alone (which proved to be enough to get their foot in the door). Things would have been much more tenuous for Nikon if it had taken them the same amount of time as Pentax to respond. By the next spring, the arrival of EOS had not only crowded the market that much more, but also provided a visibly superior alternative to Pentax' SF-1 (aka SFX) and Nikon's F-501 (N2020). The SF-1 & F-501 merely matched the Minolta at best (aside from the SF-1 having the first built-in pop-up flash on an SLR), whereas the EOS 650 pushed AF performance ahead measurably. Pentax also could not keep pace with the lens introductions of the other three big AF players, which also served to hold them back in the minds of non-Pentaxians (some of the most brand-loyal photographers out there :-)). Pentax simply never could catch up to, let alone surpass, the others. There was not going to be any grabbing of more market share under such circumstances. With the original ME F, Pentax had the right idea. It just happened to be at the wrong time, at the wrong price, and not executed to the necessary level to begin the mass market AF revolution.
When Nikon and Pentax threw their lot in with Minolta, and adopted MIB lens drive, they were looking at the short term, which served to get and/or keep them in the AF game. The problem turned out to be that the development potential of that technology turned out to be truncated compared to MIL drive, which meant that they were going to be stranded sooner rather than later. All three belatedly adopted MIL drive anywhere from the late-'90s to well into the 2000s, because the disadvantages of MIB (noise, and outright speed with big lenses) had become so apparent that they could no longer be ignored. By that time Canon's lead was insurmountable.
The same pattern held true when it came to the decisions made by each company about lens mounts. As noted before, Canon's decision to maximize future potential in the EF mount paid dividends for them for decades (they still enjoy excellent compatibility using modern EF lenses on the oldest EOS film bodies). Minolta had the same opportunity with their A-mount, but failed to make the most of it. Of course, Canon had the benefit of looking at Minolta's example and deciding which good parts to emulate and areas that they could improve upon, whereas Minolta was breaking new ground for the first time in over 25 years. That just serves to emphasize that being first brings some disadvantages. For Nikon and Pentax (to a smaller degree), the decision to stick with their then-current mounts (with a good deal of mechanical actuation) was made with the primary goal of maintaining backward compatibility with their existing MF systems. A laudable goal. The problem with that was that they failed to think about what that same concept would mean 20 - 30 years into the future. Stranding was going to happen. Every Nikon instruction manual for the past 30+ years has devoted space to compatibility issues between bodies and lenses, and the list has gotten longer over time. It has gotten to the point that Nikon's latest F-mount lenses can be mounted but no longer communicate with many of their DSLR bodies that are only a decade old (let alone older film bodies). That Nikon has managed to keep the F-mount going for six decades is an impressive achievement, but that has not come without costs...costs that Canon has been largely able to avoid.
So where are they now?
"Timing...is everything" goes the old proverb. But what looks like the worst timing can sometimes turn out to have a silver lining, depending on the way someone responds. The T80 was a sales disaster for Canon, standing in stark contrast to the all-conquering Minolta 7000. But to their credit, they reacted quickly, (not even waiting for the introduction of the T80 to move forward) yet without panicking (they set out on a two-year development program), and utilized their advantages as the market leader to the full (they were willing to sacrifice some short-term sales for long-term success). Canon has rarely been a first-mover when it comes to introducing new camera technology, but they have usually stayed close enough that they could bring their traditional strengths of good execution and marketing to bear to offset this. When they have failed, they have shown little hesitation in regrouping and coming back hard.
Although the Minolta 7000 took its rightful place as the kickstarter of the AF SLR revolution, it turned out that Canon's EOS system became the standard the rest of the industry had to measure itself against for the next 30 years. All because of the spectacular failure of the T80 versus the 7000. Looking back you could say that it was the best failure Canon ever had ;-).
Canon History Hall 1976-1986 @ https://global.canon/en/c-museum/history/story06
Canon History Hall 1987-1991 @ https://global.canon/en/c-museum/history/story07
COMPANY News; Minolta Settle Suits on Honeywell Patents - NYT - Mar. 5, 1992
Nikon to pay Honeywell to settle patent row - The Independent Aug. 22, 1992
Rivalry and Cooperation: How the Japanese Photography Industry Went Global Patricia Ann Nelson, University of Warwick, August 1998
Minolta 7000 - Popular Photography - March, May, & June 1985
Requiem for KM - Popular Photography - May 2006
Canon T80 - Popular Photography - April 1985
Canon T80 Dealer Notebook - Feb. 1985
Canon T80 @ https://global.canon/en/c-museum/product/film115.html
Canon EOS 650 @ https://global.canon/en/c-museum/product/film122.html
Canon EOS 620 @ https://global.canon/en/c-museum/product/film123.html
Suffers from a two-decade and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.