Rangefinder

Views on the photographic universe by Erwin Puts

Curves

Looking at Leica’s history since the 1930s and the intense rapport between the Leica products and the user community, one has to conclude that the core of this rapport is not the ultimate performance, even if this is an important aspect. Basically it is the strong bond of sympathy for the product itself, for the ideas behind the product and for the people who design and build these products. 
It is now almost usual routine on the countless blogs and sites to make quantitative comparisons and produce ratings based on some standard, derived from the issues of the day. When Nikon offers a 36 Mp sensor, this is the yardstick every one has to conform to and when Canon offers a 50 Mp sensor this is the new norm. When Olympus announces an improved and highly efficient technique of image stabilization, this is immediately the standard and every camera that does not offer the same or a better technique is obsolete or at least behind the state of the art. 
The numerous counselors in the blogosphere who tell Leica how to ‘improve’ the current products invariably point to one or more features that the competition has and Leica’s products are lacking. Keeping up with the Joneses however has never been Leica’s forte.

The main issue is however a different one. It is quite human to assume that the future is a regular and smooth continuation of the past and present. We have trouble identifying a disruptive event or product. The smartphone was introduced in 2007 and in combination with the internet (very disruptive, but no one identified it as such) it is about to change the whole of industry and even culture. In a few years time every one on this globe will walk around with a product that has more power than a super computer and will be connected through the internet to everything and everybody. 
Mathematically the view that the future is a continuation of the past can be represented as a linear graph or somewhat more sophisticated as an S-curve. The catastrophe theory assumes a nonlinear curve, but it is ore likely that we will be confronted with an exponential curve when we want to discuss growth patterns in the future. Moore’s Law (in computer chips) is one example of an exponential curve. The bad point is that exponential curves start as innocent linear curves and therefore are easy to disregard.
We are also accustomed to the Normal Distribution. That is a curve with a clustering of values around the mean and a proportional distribution on both sids of this mean value with ever diminishing numbers.
In this digital age another curve is emerging: the Power Law Distribution (PLD) which is a curve where a small part of the population gets a disproportional part of the available total amount. It is also known as  the-winner-takes-all-principle or the 80/20 principle. 
Because the internet is a transparent, powerful and globally operating medium any internet-surfer will be instantly aware of even small differences between products and services and can therefore demand the best available. There is no reason to be satisfied with second-best. This is the underlying cause of the fact that most proposals for improvement of Leica products are limited to incremental changes (faster AF, more features, more pixels and so). 
Because the ‘best’ is an elusive category, there is a tendency to equate ‘best’ with some quantified ranking to evade discussion. It is easy to claim that the Zeiss OTUS 55 is much better than the Leica Summilux ASPH 50 because the OTUS has 70% MTF at 50 LP/MM and the Leica ‘only 60% MTF at 40 LP/MM, but when you talk about the superior ergonomics of the Leica lens this issue is dismissed as being emotional or subjective or an opinion or a matter of taste or personal judgment. As if the equation of image quality with MTF values is not an opinion or a matter of taste or judgment! 
It would be quite naïve to assume that Leica’s engineers and/or marketing planners are not aware of the position and ranking of their products. It is customary nowadays to have the products of the competition on the desk next to their own products.   
The PLD for high end cameras shows a disproportional amount of sold products made by only two manufacturers. All others being located in the tail part of the curve. If you want to be in the peak of the curve, you have to offer products that are quantifiable and transparent the ‘best’, which is the same as most-sold or most-popular or most-admired. 
When you are in the tail there is room for individual and distinctive product management.   

Mr. Crawley concluded at the end of his report on the Leica M5 that Leica is offering a bottle of clean fresh water in a Coca Cola world. He showed respect and sympathy for a unique product and for the engineers who followed their drive to produce this product and who let themselves not be swayed by the issues of the day. 
There is a strong analogy with silver-halide emulsions. The Kodak Tri-X film has more grain and less resolution than comparable products like the T-Max 400-2 and the Ilford Delta 400 Pro. Yet the Tri-X is a favorite among BW photographers, precisely because of its so-called shortcomings. The TX-400 has a list of characteristics that allow photographers to record images with a special flavor. It is an aesthetically important technology that somehow influences the way we see. Tri-X pictures have a realistic, almost steely look that departs from the glossy, slightly pearly perfection that the medium speed films of the day have. Its authenticity generates a feeling of sympathy for the film and its use. Very creative photographers can employ the characteristics of the emulsion to produce pictures with a different look.   

The M-A, the M8.2, The M Monochrom and the X-Vario are also products that are unique and can become important tools in the hands of creative photographers. These cameras are consciously positioned in the tail with a limited range of features, but every feature is a component of a vision about photography and the cameras have a distinctive personality. As with every personality, no one is perfect and a personality is always a mix of strong and weak points. It makes no sense to continue to stress the weak points and forget about the strong points. Imagine that you are constantly confronting your best friend with his/her weak points instead of stimulating the strong points.     
    
The mix of these two trends (exponential curves and the existence of the PLD) guarantees that the future will not be predictable as a linear extension of the present. I bet that the Leica people, responsible for road maps to the future, are thinking along these lines and are not busy with linear and incremental upgrades. 
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