Why Japan can't compete with Apple and Samsung


Take, for example, Sony’s RX series of pocket cameras. When it comes to image quality–the “engineering”–they’re in a league of their own. They’re pricey, but the best.

But Nikon is Japanese. Canon is Japanese. Are these cameras badly designed?


I tried to buy a RX 100 Mark 3 last week - it was sold out everywhere. The only place I could get it was a Sony Store (at full retail :frowning: ) , and even then it was by having it shipped from the warehouse with a 3 days delivery.

The menu software has been changed on the Mark 3.

They seem to have a winner there, at least.

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Depends on the model, but that’s not really the point of the article.
I have a Nikon DSLR and a Canon point and shoot, but the fact of the matter is that I take the bulk of my photos with my iPhone and use it for everything else that it’s for - mail, media, etc…

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While I’m not surprised by the Economist concluding that workers being hard to fire and management not taking (unspecified) bold risks is the problem; I am skeptical.

If they were merely hidebound, wouldn’t the expected symptoms be ‘still produces outstanding products; but not necessarily the ones people want’ rather than ‘Er, Sony? didn’t they make minidisks and rootkits or something?’

With something like Vaio, they were always expensive and hostile in certain respects; but there was a time when they also made a variety of pieces that you wanted even if you couldn’t necessarily afford them. Back when the ‘Pentium 4 Mobile’ was still being treated as a perfectly reasonable product, rather than a contradiction in terms, they were the PC OEM that did the thinnest, the lightest, the ultra-portablest.

Now? It’s been at least five years, probably closer to a decade, since I’ve even seen one that warranted a second glance, despite the fact that what they used to do is now wildly popular, Intel actually ships the right silicon for the job, and so on. If mere inertia were at work, surely they could at least offer a few spec-bumped models that were as cool as what they did 10 years ago?


The absolute bloodbath in phones is particularly embarrassing since the Japanese market has long been the most featurey of the featurephone markets. Talking about how amazing Japanese phones were was pretty much a genre in tech journalism back when the US market was ‘whatever Verizon puked up, or Blackberry’. Now, Not. So. Much. Even aside from Apple, they are barely up to the challenge of building an android handset worth looking at, which is a bit surprising given that they’d just have to let their traditional hardware engineering strength go to work while resisting the impulse to touch the software…

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But beyond hardware engineering, they’re very badly designed. The menu system is a difficult mess. The associated apps are rudimentary, crashy, and larded with unprofessional social networking features and branding.

This parallels my experience with the Sony Clie, their Palm OS PDA from back in the day. I was (and to some extent still am) my library’s mobile device “expert” (meaning that I had one, loved talking to people about them, and would Google anything I didn’t know personally), and we had a group of students in one department who all had new Clies because their department had wanted them to be ahead of the tech curve, and had either associated the Sony brand name with quality, or gotten a really good deal on them because they weren’t selling, or both.

They were a mess. Some of them simply wouldn’t sync. The homegrown home screen that Sony had replaced the Palm home screen with was confusing, and the manual didn’t help. Some of my online sources claimed that the nonintuitiveness of the interface was a characteristic of Japanese consumer electronics, that they liked their gadgets to be a bit fussy, but it’s not as if you needed to spend two weeks learning how to use, say, a Walkman. I’d put it down to a certain amount of arrogance on Sony’s part, the same arrogance that led them to try to force a number of failed media formats–the Betamax, the Minidisc, the Memory Stick (which the Clie had a port for)–onto the market.


The Economist. I love to always have it in the restroom…in case of
an emergency. You know in case I forget to replenish the stock of rolls.
Seriously , we have been getting it it for free for years now. And I
have to suffer the stupid headlines and once in a while I take a pick at
something I’m interested in…Hoping I don’t have to face their
inexplicable lack of balanced analysis. They are serving the same soup
that Fox news is serving , with the same simplifications , but they
simply intellectualize it.Pathetic.
Anyway , I can’t comment on a source I don’t find trustworthy.


They are not well-designed in the same sense that the Sony cameras are not well-designed: great hardware, but 20th-century UI and strategy.

They have strong established markets, thanks to excellent pro gear and dealer networks, but it won’t last forever. They’ve not adapted well either to smartphones’ attack at the consumer end or the way Sony (and other Japanese firms) are muscling in at the pro end.

None of them are exactly doing gangbusters on the profits front.

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Why won’t they just opensource the software then? With great hardware as the base, the menus and other annoyances are a matter of fairly small scale code tweaks (assuming the software structure is not utter crap). And it would allow a lot of scripting and user-contributed features, like CHDK on steroids.

The last camera I bought as new (the others I have are usually secondhands or hand-downs) was Casio Exilim, but that was for the 1000fps shooting feature; otherwise I’d go Canon because of CHDK.

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This is kind of the point–that way of thinking is just not their way at all. There is an entire hacking community built around unauthorized camera firmware improvement. Adding in professional features, higher video bitrates, improved audio performance, exposing serious hardware hardly used by default…

See, for example, Magic Lantern: http://www.magiclantern.fm



Now, does that thing have some sort of a connection to the Outside World, e.g. an UART port that can be used for setting up the device, remote control with pendants with buttons, and triggering the shots as desired? Do these things have TV output that is operating in parallel to the display and not just for viewing photos?

A TV output is a must-have e.g. for microphotography. Microscopes are finicky about focus and a large screen is a big help. A TV card in a computer then can be used for “receiving” the signal and showing it on a monitor, and VLC player can even provide horizontal flipping for better user comfort. Ability to directly set the camera’s parameters over a remote connection (if possible including the manual focus control) would be great for these things, and would allow more automation, e.g. making several shots with different settings and either auto-picking or letting the operator choose the best.

(This could be potentially done by object-recognition in the video signal, “reading” the icons shown by the camera, and simulating keypresses by activating optocouplers in parallel to the buttons. But it is awkward and a direct comm would be better. Any sort of a direct bidirectional communication would be handy here.)

Some time ago I hacked a cable release into a Nikon S51 camera because of the need to attach it to a microscope because pressing a button on its body moved it. Plus some other added wiring. Which had the unfortunate side effect of introducing EMI sensitivity that sometimes makes the camera seize when flash is fired, but it is not often enough to be crippling (otherwise I’d take it apart yet again and add yet more shielding; the first attempt without shielded wires was seizing at almost every flash shot so copper tape had to be added). These compacts can be attached directly to the microscope eyepiece; the smaller the cam’s lens, the less vignetting it will experience.
An early version of the microscope rig, using another microscope and camera, is here.

Thought: a “smart microscope” using some good image sensor, Raspberry Pi, and couple servos/steppers to handle the focus and the sample positioning.

Another thought: for stereomicroscopes, use two image sensors and stream the video as stereo-HDMI to a consumer-grade 3d-TV. Would allow much better and clearer macro-photos and, if pushed a bit forward, even work with micromanipulators. (The lens actuators from DVD drives have submicrometer accuracy, albeit only two axes.)


I think you’re overthinking this. Many medium to high end dlsrs support tethering with liveview. At the lower end, it’s limited to “trigger the camera and import the resulting image”. More expensive models support a full range of camera controls, including focusing–though bellows attachments tend to be manual devices.

At the very least, triggering the camera with a computer removes the problem of camera shake, and is far less annoying than countdwown timer mode…

I believe this starts to get interesting with the Nikon D5X00 series, but as I only have a D3100, I can’t say for certain. Canon is different.

Sony did try to make a remote controllable camera-- the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-QX100, but as you can’t change the lens, I’m not sure how useful it would be for macrophotography.

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Check out this review of camranger for a glimpse of what a tethering interface can be. Of course, you do have to get the right sort of camera.

This is not in accordance with the predictions for the cyberpunk future.


Guilty as charged. I tend to overthink things in general. Usually it’s fun.

All true! And the camranger thing is also interesting. Definitely something to look for when getting a new or “preowned” camera off the market.

With hand-me-downs and scavenges the choices are however much more constrained and DIY solutions are usually called for.

Japanese hardware= generally great; software/interface= generally an off-putting pain. The products that made Japan famous didn’t involve much by way of an interface- think cars, film cameras, Walkmen etc. Digital camera menus are an obvious example- so much control on offer, but finding your way around it, or quickly finding the item you want to change before you miss the shot, well, sorry. It’s like having to learn an arcane language. Olympus took a good step forward with the introduction of a ‘super control panel’ in their micro 4/3s cameras, but step away from it and you’re in the jungle again.

I bought an aftermarket Sony car radio recently. Works brilliantly, but the buttons/settings interface is profoundly non-intuitive. The manual seems to contain most the information, but again there is no apparent ‘system’ or logical framework that might guide you in selecting or changing settings. I still have to refer to the manual (too) frequently to change settings or to set up again after power disconnection.

Consumer electronics is a notoriously dangerous, unpredictable business, in Japan or elesewhere. It’s no accident that large, established electronics firms gradually specialize towards the capital goods market, or to the supply of strategic components for others. Those markets don’t have the boom proftis of a consumer market success, but they are a lot more predictable, especially for firms with good R&D experience.

The consumer market has runaway profitable successs. Thoss are almost by definition widely-known succeses, making them attractive topics for non-specialist’s news stories. But behind the succeses, most consumer market firms and products run on razor-edge margins. There’s always plenty of threat of cheaper competition offering a ‘good enough’ alternative, or just of a fashion change that leaves your expensively developed product line behind.

If you want, you can go to any place in the world, find a struggling formerly succesful consumer electronics firm, and write a story how the national spirit has failed.

Basically only the (surprisingly large) segment of the Japanese population that still believes that “Made In Japan” is important or better. For some its important because friends or family members work for one of the Electronics conglomerates or a related company like a subcontractor or supplier. For many “better” means loads of features they will never use but mastering the 300 page manual and the convoluted interface is the sort of achievement people here actually take pleasure in.

As for the “control the home” aspect, well, they’ve been pushing that “internet of things” concept for years now and it seems really no one here actually wants that.

Skepticism can be healthy but in this case, based on my nearly 18 years in Japan, I’ll say that The Economist basically has it right on this matter. Want to kill off a product line that is obsolete or unpopular? Good luck trying to round up all the support you will need since that would require 1) figuring out what to do with all the staff involved in that product line, and 2) causing whatever managers responsible for that product line to “lose face”. No one ever wants to start such moves because they all know that once this sort of thing starts, they could be next. No one really innovates on HUI for pretty much the same reasons plus “everyone is doing it so our customers must like it” (see also my response to Rob above.

But all that was in the pre-smartphone era and frankly having lived here back then, those things were always a bitch to use.

I’ll confirm your online sources, and its true even today.

On business and economics they are reasonable but I’m learning how bad their politics and international coverage is. For example, here are the people responsible for Japan coverage. Not one of them lists Japanese as a language they speak or read.

I wonder if its as complex or hard to use as the audio/navigation system that came stock with our Nissan car here in Japan? I’m not going to replace it till I see what Apple brings to market with CarPlay so I can compare that to other offerings.

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IMHO, Japanese post-war consumer electronics bloom is simply a matter of being at the right place, at the right time, with the right resources, and leaders with the vision. However, the time has passed, and the manufacturing advantage had been lost. And the market has gotten more sophisticated.

Japanese electronics cannot be compared with Japanese auto as they started quite differently. Japanese electronics are overengineered compared to almost anything else contemporary… back then. They are almost like the old MBenz… engineered to last 20-30 years. And they use that engineering to pack in even more features. The smallest Walkman, I remember, was barely larger than the cassette tape itself. And use a SINGLE AA battery!

Japanese auto on the other hand, started as econoboxes (for local market) exported to fit the post-oil embargo fuel economy market. In a certain way, they are polar opposites. The electronics started high and tried to work their way down, while the autos started low and tried to work their way up (Toyota, Nissan, and Honda spawned Lexus, Infiniti, and Acura…)

But Japanese electronics suffered from its consumer-orientedness… and its perceived premium status. When Korean and Chinese cloners got enough prowess to infiltrate the low-end and work their way up (exactly the opposite of Japanese electronics) Japanese electronics makers can’t really compete except outsourcing their manufacturing when they can. So there goes the low-end. On the other hand, they don’t have a lock on the extreme high-end either.

Speaking of Sony, one could say it haven’t made a right bet in decades, one mis-cue after another. BetaMax and MiniDisc are probably the best remembered examples. Any one remember the Palm PDAs they made? The Sony CLIE series? Died on the vine. MemoryStick? Nobody uses it except on the consoles. ATRAC music compression? Nobody remembered it (everybody knows MP3). They even joined Android game late.

Arguably, the ONLY major success Sony had in recent years is the Playstation series. And even that was marred by the “Playstation Phone” (Android phone with Playstation style control pad, but requires its own game library)

This may be something to do with the Japanese psyche. I remember a while back I read Nintendo’s design process. They have three teams, sort of competing and sort of alternating with different projects. And that somehow brought us Virtual Boy… a true disaster of a console that’s neither handheld nor full console, neither fish nor fowl. Marketing overpromised and engineering underdelivered. I think they are assuming that the consumers will adopt whatever they put out, almost like fashion/ couture or car models , and they are “surprised” when the consumers didn’t follow.

And it seems Sony was doing the same thing, and same with all the other makers. They are engineering stuff WITHOUT regard of consumer needs. This may work when consumers are fairly unsophisticated, but it’s a “self-liquidating” market. Soon consumers will demand more.

Now that the technical / engineering prowess of Korea (and China) have caught up (at least somewhat), Sony can’t really compete on the low-end, and is barely holding its own on the high-end, if at all.

I used to have a VAIO laptop. It was great… Until the DVD drive failed. It has features that I never used… such as the i.Link (i.e. Firewire) port. Or an actual 56K landline modem… and so on. Or custom launcher button I can designate to launch a particular program on demand (never used that either). It is as if they are engineering features just for the heck of it.

And that’s the lessons they need to learn… quickly.

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