Innovation certainly drives commerce. Photographers who were once happy to change cameras every five to ten years have been trained, like monkeys hitting a treat bar and getting a piece of fruit, to upgrade to a new and different camera every time their favorite manufacturer rings the bell (or, advertises a new and improved camera model).
But it's important to know that not all innovation is net positive for the consumer. I went to buy a phone recently and looked at the various iPhone models. The newest ones seem huge compared to the previous models. The 6S is bigger than the 5S and "features" the rounded corners and gently beveled case that every other current phone from every cellphone maker "features." You could suggest that a bigger phone is an "innovation" but I think we all know it's just a choice. Bigger screen or smaller screen. Bigger phone or smaller phone. Nothing innovative there. It's just the new "plus" sizing for people who need a bit of room....
The innovation that the previous iPhones brought to the table (in addition to their highly capable software features) was a beautiful design that allowed the phone to do just about everything normal people wanted to do with a phone but also allowed the phone to fit in the pocket of one's jeans. Even one's tight jeans. The iPhones before the iPhone 5S did that trick even more gracefully. Their innovation was to use design to decomplicate a product and at the same time make it more transparent to the user in daily life....
All the phones can display e-mail and texts and all of them can field telephone calls. An innovation would be an invisible phone, or one that you could buy once and use forever with no additional fees. An innovation would be changing to a power supply that never needed charging. Or was bulletproof.
Having a slightly bigger screen or being able to play Candy Crush a bit faster could be counted as an "improvement" but not an innovation.
In the world of cameras I don't see size differentials as profound innovations. Cameras can be larger or smaller and still take great photographs. The size difference might signify convenience to one part of the market (small enough to fit in a woman's purse of a "man bag", larger to supply good ergonomics for handholding with bigger, heavier lenses). We can put a big chip in a small body, a la the Sony RX1 and we can put a small chip in a big body a la the Panasonic FZ 1000 or the Panasonic GX8. Other attributes will define whether or not the camera is an innovation. In the case of the Sony RX1, for example, it might be the tight integration of the sensor and the permanently mounted lens---but that really just strikes me as a performance enhancement....
I started thinking about this because I've been reading articles and blogs which continually denigrate Canon for not "innovating" over the past five years, in the field of digital cameras. (Keep in mind that Canon sells more single use, digital cameras than any of their competitors). The writers, and their respondents, continually blame Canon's sales decline of cameras to their lack of innovation.
When I dig a little deeper I see that what they mean by innovation can be shortlisted down to three main concerns. First, for whatever reason, they want Canon to take the mirrors out of their cameras. There is a pervasive idea that mirrorless cameras are something for makers of cameras to aspire to. I have long been an adherent of electronic viewfinders in cameras but I've never cared whether it is a result of removing the mirrors or not. Sony did a decent job of incorporating EVFs into all the late models of their Alpha cameras with no major problems. It is not required, technically, for Nikon and Canon to remove mirrors from their cameras in order to implement EVFs, although I presume it would make the process both easier and less expensive. At any rate, the pundits want those mirrors gone.
Next, they want everyone to use the same metrics for measuring the value of the sensors in the cameras. The litmus test is the Sony A7R2 or the Nikon D810. Match them for the performance metrics those sensor excel in or meet with withering criticism and derision. It may be that the advanced Canon products have metrics at which they excel but the crowd consensus is ready to discount those attributes pretty quickly. It may be that Canon's color rendering is better. It may be that Canon sensors outperform the Sony sensors for dynamic range at higher ISOs (where it might even be more meaningful for image quality improvements) but none of that matter as long as "innovation" is uniform and lockstep.
Finally, the third category is size&weight. The idea being that all smaller cameras are better than bigger cameras, all things being otherwise equal. Given that I have friends who are almost seven feet all and who can palm two basketballs in one hand, and I have friends who are tiny and whose faces are mostly hidden behind an Olympus OMD with a battery grip attached, I think I would have to say that there is no overwhelming advantage to any particular sized cameras in the aggregated market.
Then there are those of us who are effectively size neutral and who can be comfortable with a super-dinky EM5 but also be right at home with a Nikon D810 or D4s.
While it is true that Canon and Nikon have spent the last five years iterating their cameras lines instead of making ground shaking innovations I see the subtle but real improvements from camera to camera as being just as valuable as silly things like camera body shrinkage (less for your money?) and a fixation with odd stuff like ultra high electronic shutter speeds, ultra high frame rates, etc.
As consumers I think we should rejoice and applaud a lack of useless innovations by good camera makers because in some small way it helps to trim down our voracious appetite for a constant flow of new and improved stuff.
I would much rather have Nikon, for example, fix the focusing issues of the D7000 in the later models (the D7100 and D7200) than add stuff like twenty stop bracketing to the new cameras, instead. I would much rather have Canon improve the sensor in their line of Rebel cameras than improve the ability of the cameras to do more things like internal HDR, improved GPS (surely you can remember where you went on vacation last month without having to research it in your cameras.....right?).
I applaud Nikon and Canon for continuing to make workable tools that actually fit into adult hands. I'm not sure I want them to innovate themselves into a limited product offering of mini-cameras with nothing but cheesy and annoying rear screens for composition.
There are some camera attributes that don't need re-thinking: size, handling and ergonomics are some of them. I would much rather have the same body style year after year with nothing more to look forward to than better sensors and better movie codecs.
Have you noticed that the steering wheels in cars haven't changed much in the last twenty years. If you measure them across different models you'd find an amazing relative consistency in circumference. And position. And design (circular). No joystick versions from movies about the future. And there is a reason for this..... They found a design that works across a huge demographic. People have been acculturated to understand how to use them. The design of the steering wheel is always expected by drivers. Just so with cameras. Body sizes and styles are a reflection of 60+ years of designing and researching handheld cameras.
If you want to demand real innovation then let's start thinking of really cool stuff we'd actually want or need on a camera. How about an atmospherically neutrally buoyant cameras and lens that floats along in the air with you instead of weighing down your shoulder. How about a sensor that tracks where your eye is looking and focuses on that point for you? Oh, wait, Canon designed and introduced that in the 1980's....
How about unifying the raw file format among all camera makers so you don't have to wait for Adobe to reverse engineer hundreds of different cameras codes every year? Just imagine, you buy a brand new camera and go right out and shoot raw files without having to default to some camera maker's 1970's version of a raw converter for post production. Innovation? How about a sensor module that could be easily traded out for a yearly, or every other year, quality enhancement of the camera you already know and enjoy using? A $400 update to a better sensor while running the same camera control firmware you know and love. And the same lenses, and flashes, and batteries...
And an innovation for Olympus users? How about a menu that makes sense to the rest of the world?
Was it an innovation a year and a half ago when Pentax put a row of LED lights down the front of their consumer level DSLR? Disco lights on a camera? No one else had done it. No, not innovation --just senseless bling and quicker battery drain.
We'd love to place blame for the decline of the overall, single use camera market at the feet of Nikon and Canon and accuse them of killing off the craft by not innovating appropriately and quickly enough but the reality is that the market shrunk because photography got (apparently) easier and no longer very challenging. Everyone's ability became special, all at the same time.
The call for innovation in cameras is silly. How often does the hammer get redesigned? Or the screwdriver blade? Or the basic elements of a refrigerator? Or the driving controls of a car? Why should cameras have to answer to a higher standard? Isn't it enough to continue improving them year after year.? Isn't it a benefit to be able to spend time getting up to speed on the device?
The one major product sector that changes with every season is fashion clothing. Surely we aren't ready to admit that we only buy new cameras because of the addiction to ever changing product styles...
What do you really want in a single use camera? The ability to continue using the lenses you like. A straightforward interface. Good performance. Good handling. And like the porridge that Goldilocks was shamelessly stealing, they should be not too big. Not too small. But just right.
There. I think we covered it.