A recent interview published in Nikkei Business with Sony Vice Chairman Shigeki Ishizuka reveals that Sony once considered joining the Micro Four Thirds camera system. Back in 2007, three years before the Sony E mount was first released in the Sony NEX-3, he says Sony was invited to team up with the pair and join the MFT system.
Back then, the Micro Four Thirds System Standard Group was headed up by Panasonic and Olympus (now OM System). Since that time, they’ve also added Yongnuo, Venus Optics (Laowa) and DJI, amongst others. It sure makes you wonder how the camera landscape would look today had Sony decided to take the plunge.
Sony Group Vice Chairman Shigeki Ishizuka (hereafter, Ishizuka): Around 2007, the Micro Four Thirds camp approached me with the question, “Would you like to join the family?”
Q: Micro Four Thirds is a standard that Panasonic and Olympus (currently OM System) teamed up to reduce the size of interchangeable lens cameras using a mirrorless system that eliminates the mirror. That means that the goal of making it small and light is the same as Mr. Ishizuka’s, isn’t it?
Q: What happened? In reality, Sony never released a Micro Four Thirds camera, so I turned it down.
Ishizuka: That’s right, but I didn’t say no right away. We were also debating how to make a compact interchangeable-lens camera, so naturally we wanted to include Micro Four Thirds as an option.
Sony seems to have taken the offer to join the Micro Four Thirds group quite seriously. Naturally, their goal was to make more compact cameras than the massive array of DSLRs lining the store shelves, but was Micro Four Thirds the way to do it? Obviously not, or we wouldn’t be talking about this today. But there was a time when Sony were worried about the competition from Micro Four Thirds as the only other serious competitor in the mirrorless space.
Ishizuka: It was the fall of 2008, and I will never forget it. We had a brainstorming session for the medium-term plan for the next three years. Of course, Sony’s interchangeable-lens cameras would have to be made smaller, equal, and mirrorless.
The format at that time, or rather, what kind of system should be used? As one of them, “Let’s accept Micro Four Thirds as it is”. As part 2, “Let’s shift to mirrorless while maintaining the assets and brand of α, and do a miniaturized version.” I had a few other ideas, but these two were the most realistic.
Essentially, it appears that being able to keep the Alpha brand assets was ultimately more valuable. He also suggests that at that time, Sony also decided that they’d be able to do more with an APS-C sensor than a Micro Four Thirds sensor and that the E mount wasn’t originally designed to be used with full-frame sensors – a fact that other manufacturers have pointed out several times over the years.
The complete interview is well worth a read if you want some insight into Sony’s thinking back then. It does make me wonder what state the camera industry would be in right now had Sony made the move to MFT instead of APS-C and full-frame.
Q: Were there any concerns about duplication of investment, such as, “We have an A mount for α, but why add an E mount and have a lens for that as well?”
Ishizuka: Well, to be honest, I thought the mirrorless product I was thinking of at the time was a small pocketable camera for general consumers. That’s why I didn’t intend to create a full lineup of lenses, only the standard series.
Q. Huh, was that so? Then, in the future, the E-mount will be compatible with full-size image sensors, and the lens lineup will be full.
Ishizuka: No, I didn’t think so at the time.
Would Sony have been as successful at convincing the masses that MFT could do the job as they have been with their actual systems? Would Sony have released a whole slew of new higher end MFT lenses that Panasonic and Olympus/OM System don’t make? Or would they have sat back and just focused on cameras, letting other companies take care of the lenses? Would Sony have become a struggling camera manufacturer like Olympus, being forced to sell off its camera division? And if Sony had been as successful, what about all the 3rd parties making E mount glass today?
We’ll never know the answers to these and other questions – although some can be figured out with common sense – but it is interesting to wonder what could have been.
Do you think Sony made the right move? Their success obviously shows they know what they’re doing, but would they have been as successful had they gone MFT? More successful? The Micro Four Thirds video shooter in me kinda wishes Sony had chosen the other way, but I’m also glad it didn’t. Whether or not Sony would’ve succeeded or not in an MFT world is obviously open to debate, but there’s no doubt that if Sony hadn’t entered the APS-C/full-frame market, Nikon and Canon would still be making DSLRs and the L mount alliance probably wouldn’t exist.