Alternative views on the Leica world by Erwin Puts

Leica's future

Every time that Leica starts to issue special models of the M-series one is inclined to become suspicious about the state of the Leica company. There was a peak in M6 special models at the end of its commercial life and there is now a peak of special models of the M9 and M cameras. The recently announced change of CEO is another indication that the Leica company is not in the feel-good-shape that the new headquarters in Wetzlar try to convey on the visitors. Some time ago I wrote about the smartphone-menace to mainstream photography and Leica tried to counter this trend with the Leica T. I was alone in noting that the T was not a smart product (the rest of the world gave the camera the usual designations of ‘milestone’, ‘innovative’, ‘brilliant’ and so on. Words are easy to employ! Now there are serious indications that the sales of the T are not as hoped for. I was also almost alone in noting that any M (with whatever specifications) has a limited sales appeal for a limited group of persons, not necessary photographers and that sales of M cameras after a peak will inevitably drop. This is a marketing and engineering problem, because the double goal of preserving the DNA of the CRF and creating a totally new and modern CRF is like squaring the circle. The Fuji X-series has some success, undoubtedly, as a modern version of a classic CRF, but lacks the true DNA of the Leica CRF. The smartphone has almost killed the compact digital camera and in this segment the D-C-V and X series of Leica are the obvious victims. Add to all of this the tremendous success of Apple’s iPhone 6 and the recent campaign by Apple to promote the photographic capabilities of the ‘6’ and it is clear that the compact digital camera will be extinct in the near future. Many observers have remarked that the main problem of the current generation of high quality digital cameras (dSLRs and dCRF) is the fact that modern electronics are embodied in traditional ‘analog’-camera bodies that are not easy to use for the iPad and smartphone generation. It is indeed preposterous that you need to wade through hundreds of pages of manual for a product that only should need a few very simple actions to work. Compare the Leica M-A with the Leica M and you see what I mean. When Leica announced the intention to grow tenfold it was clear that the then current range of products was not suitable as a platform to support such an ambitious goal. Not only the product portfolio, but also the company’s infrastructure, organization and culture were not suited to accomplish this goal. It is one to build a larger factory, buy new machines and hire additional people, but it is two to make it happen. Captain Kirk and his Vulcan companion might be able to achieve this, but for mortals it is a different story. The string of problems that have erupted from the Leica factory are an indication that the combination of fast product introduction and higher production levels cannot be handled with good success, at least not by a company with the Leica-Solms heritage. I am sure Blackstone has observed these events with growing concern and has acted as any investor who looks exclusively at the return on investments would have done. I am also sure that this (the ambitious goals) is the reason why Hermes pulled out of the company after discussions with Lee. In discussions with Leica personnel, there is ofter a reference with the Porsche analogy. Porsche started as a high-quality low volume niche producer and managed to evolve into a high-quality-high volume special product manufacturer. Leica seems to want to follow the same route, but lacks one distinctive commodity. This is for the next story.