The question no one dares to pose (2008)
The removal of Steven Lee as CEO of Leica has nothing to do with his interview in AP or at PMA, but is the result of this simple figure: the third quarter turnover of Leica (period till December 2007) was reduced from Euro 45.4 Million to 38.2 Million (in Q1) and profit was halved to Euro 1.8 Million. With this figure in mind it is clear that Lee was fighting a losing battle. The Leica products were not selling as well as anticipated and his drive to improve sales by introducing a new range of lenses did not pay off. These figures also indicate that the sales of Leica products, including the M8 were not as jubilant as some observers predicted. A clue of this you can get from the LFI where it is noted that the sales of the 4/3 models are below expectations.
It is evident that Leica lives from its mystique and not from its business case. A few years ago, Mr Kaufmann accepted the conventional wisdom that Leica could thrive in two domains: the analogue world of the M7/MP and the digital world of the M8. The introduction of the M8 is the result of this thinking. And Mr Kaufmann accepted this business model.
The conclusion now is: this idea did not work: the dividing line between analogue nostalgia and digital future (see Handelsblatt) is not yet crossed.
The basic question now is: is it possible to evolve the rangefinder concept into a new concept fitting fro the digital world.
I have noted more than once that the RF concept is not only attractive to a small niche market, but faces increasingly diminishing results when compared to competitors in the digital domain.
The current Leica style-rangefinder is at the end of its useful life. It is already amazing that a concept that was designed half a century ago could be still in existence without any substantial change. In ergonomics, quality, engineering and price, Leica has lost or is losing. There are two domains where Leica excels: that is longevity and focus accuracy. But no one wants to buy a camera with a 50 year life span and with manual focusing, that is not suited to current photographic styles. The Rangefinder-concept is no longer a valid tool for current photographers. A few diehards may love the simplicity and purity of the M camera concept, but this group is shrinking. Leica needs new customers and this is acknowledged by Mr Kaufmann. New customers do not want nostalgic products, however surrounded by magic, but they want products that are competitive in today’s market.
The business cycle at Leica is always the same: initial demand is high for any new product for a maximum of two years. Then market saturation forces a lowering of production, because initial demand is fulfilled and market expansion not possible. Leica has more and more trouble proving the virtues of the RF-concept and justifying the investment that is required. The latest move at PMA to ask attention for two lenses that are in production for several years is a weak marketing move. It may indicate Leica’s desperation for attention in the market.
I am in the happy situation that I can handle any camera in production today form Hasselblad over Sony, Olympus, Pentax to Canon and Nikon. I do admire the products and I am amazed at the results I can get. Still I always return to the M camera and enjoy using it. I am sure many current Leica M users feel the same. But this feeling does not generate a single extra sales. And new markets with additional customers are needed for Leica to survive.
Mr Kaufmann then needs to answer this question: if I want to secure a future for Leica, what are the products that will enable this goal?
All the hype around a possible M9 with full frame sensor or an upgrade program for the M8 to be updated to a full frame sensor does not answer this basic question: an M9 with 14 Million pixels is still a manually operating RF camera (to be a purist: full frame does not refer to size but to a transfer technique: the size is indicated by the film formats: 135 for 35mm and 120 for 6x6cm) and does anyone want to use a manual focusing RF camera for a price that buys you a truly excellent if not superior dSLR.
Current market trends do indicate that the RF concept is doomed. That is a shame given the existential and philosophical implications of the disappearance of the Leica M. You cannot but conclude that the M camera will not by itself secure the future of the Leica company.The fact that no one heard anything about developments in the analogue domain is an indication that Leica has stopped believing that the film loading Leica RF camera might be a part of the solution.
The existential question is this: is the RF concept in itself a viable solution to the problems photographers are confronting? The camera is a tool and only valuable as long as it does enable the task that has to be completed. The Leica M virtues are being reduced by current digital concepts and software products. There is a moment in time where one has to conclude that the M camera is more nostalgia than future.
The Leica M camera now is mainly about joy and emotion. Sadly it is no longer the tool with the best handling and quality and offering added value that no one else has.
Like it or not: the RF concept is in danger of becoming an obsolete object: more lenses and a bigger sensor do not change that conclusion.
Leica has to convince new users that the RF concept is exciting and a true alternative to the dSLR concept in terms of image quality and image production.