The Fall Of Asahi Pentax And How It Relates To Nikon

In 1919, Asahi Optical Joint Stock Co. was founded and started manufacturing lenses for eyeglasses. They eventually progressed to manufacturing projection lenses, binoculars and camera lenses. In 1952, they released the first domestically manufactured SLR camera – the Asahiflex. In 1957 the Asahi Optical Company acquired the name “Pentax”. Since then “Asahi Optical” and “Asahi Pentax” became world-renowned names in photography. They were bigger than Canon and Nikon put together.

Then Pentax started losing business, and Hoya acquired Pentax in 2007 for the latter’s expertise and technologies in the field of medical optics. In 2011 Hoya sold off what was left of Pentax’s photography division to Ricoh. Today, Pentax has the smallest market share of all Japanese camera companies. Spotting a Pentax camera in public use is extremely rare – I have only seen one instance in the entirety of two years. Ricoh probably only keeps the Pentax subsidiary afloat as Japanese laws make it messy for employees to be retrenched, and the original acquisition agreement could make it difficult for Ricoh to dissolve the subsidiary. Besides, the Pentax business is so minuscule in the context of Ricoh’s entire business portfolio that they could probably keep it afloat while keeping financial commitments minimal. Although recent reports out of Tokyo suggest that even Ricoh is starting to weigh the worth of the Pentax business…

Today in 2017, Pentax is not merely a shadow of its former self. It is a fading memory of a shadow of its former self. 😦

The important question I wanted to ask was, what happened to lead up to the Hoya sale in 2007?

What surprised me was that the history of Asahi Pentax’s decline is actually not so well chronicled. Asking existing Pentax users for explanations tend to be counter-productive, as the remaining remnant of Pentax users are an angry and emotional lot. Not the best source for objective information.

Thanks to some discussions on Pentax Rumors where some old-time photographers (free of Pentaxian rage) happened to drop by, I was finally able to piece together some semblance of a timeline and explanations for Pentax’s decline. The following are the snippets of fruitful information that will piece together the full picture of the fall of Asahi Pentax.

“Pentax has been trailing behind the big three, Canon, Nikon, Minolta/Sony, at least since the mid 1980s. I remember in the 1990s camera retailers discouraging me from buying Pentax [SLRs] because they might leave the market for lack of sales. So, I think the history of how Pentax ended up where they are today starts already way, way back.”

“It’s difficult to explain adequately. They overestimated their importance in Medium Format and 135 Format and underestimated the competition.

Mamiya 645 took hold in Medium Format in the 1970s and Canon took hold in 135 Format in the 1980s, catching everyone off guard. I had difficult selling Canon equipment in the 1970s but things seemed to reverse themselves quickly with Andre Agassi pitching Canon–moreso than Cheryl Tiegs pitching Olympus, perhaps.

Pentax didn’t really advance, sadly. When DSLRs arrived, they didn’t seem to try. No one had a good handle on sensors, except maybe for Kodak. It was probably when the K10D arrived that people started to notice Pentax again. By that time, they seemed to be a lost cause.”

“The problems for Asahi/Pentax actually started early.
The choice of the M42 mount (created by Zeiss in East Germany and first used 1949) may have seemed a good idea in the 50’s as it was free to use, so no need to develop an own mount, and already then was the universal thread lens mount with a lot of lenses made for it. So there would be no lack of lenses made for a M42 camera.

As Asahi/Pentax made quite good cameras and excellent lenses, many still very usable, they quickly became the SLR market leaders. I remember seeing a group photo of a meeting with the photoclub from the 60’s here in my small town. All carried a Pentax Spotmatic camera.

But by the end of the decade Pentax started loosing ground. The reason was the M42 thread mount. A bayonet mount is much faster and easier for lens changing. Nikon with their F-mount, pro cameras and wide lens line-up therefore took a very big share of the pro market while other using a bayonet mount, especially Minolta took many sales from the enthusiast market.

Pentax didn’t introduce the K-mount until 1975. That was at least five years too late as competition using a bayonet mount in the 70’s grew stronger. By then they already had lost their leading position, which meant less revenue, meaning less money to invest in new products and so on. Pentax was caught in a downward spiral that started already in the 60’s and couldn’t get out of it. A lot of bad management decisions on the road did of course not help.”

“Asahi Optical had several glass coating patents, some of them jointly developed with Carl Zeiss AG, and almost any and all lens makers paid licence fees to them to use these patents. The corresponding money was a large chunk of Asahi’s profitability. When these patents became public domain, the loss of earnings was considerable.”

In other words, giant corporations don’t fall overnight. It takes several years of of bad decisions, complacency, and very slow reaction to the changes in technology that all the competitors are pursuing.

Wait, did I also just describe the Nikon of today? 😉

Indeed, it looks like Nikon may well be following in Pentax’s footsteps. They are totally absent in the mid and high-end videography space. They are now also absent in the MILC space. Their technology push in DSLRs seem to have hit a ceiling with questionable space for advancements, as follow-ups to their very successful D750 and D810 bodies from 2014 are now overdue by 7-9 months (as of April 2017). Their prior commitments to the Nikon-1, Nikon360 and Nikon DL products appear to be bad business decisions and a huge waste of money and resources. Their continued insistence on product iterations that always find some way to penalise an upgrader (How would you like a D7200 successor with one one less memory card slot?) is causing a lot of frustration among loyal users.

Yup, sounds like a “Fall of Asahi Pentax version 2.0” in the making.

My feel is that if Nikon cannot demonstrate that they are an innovative company that is at the forefront of pursuing visual technology and customer satisfaction by the end of 2017, they will lose market share permanently. This is the kind of market share you will never be able to reclaim back unless a competitor makes some bad mistakes to turn off their users.

Information for this article will not be possible without contributions from Sakaphoto Graphics, Mistral75, El Aura and EnPassant. Thanks to all for the information.

WY

One comment

  1. We’ve seen this very clearly before in small computers, especially software companies. Quite aside from the bully tactics of Microsoft (who uses WordPerfect nowadays?), companies have consistently fallen when they failed to be really and truly interested in their own business – sitting back like fat cats and assuming that the status quo will continue without regular, steady infusions of high energy on their part. The research departments (Including customer research) are hugely important to a tech company’s continued success. People should be looking at Sony, and doing it better – there’s a lot of room for that, as Sony always seems to regularly step on its own tail – example: terrible follow-focus in some models, and not really very inspiring image “feel,” at least that I’ve been able to see.

    If Canon can bring its tremendous development resources to the game, I’m pretty sure it could compete with Sony. Not so sure about Nikon, though if it could bring a big-sensor mirrorless camera to market, compatible with existing Nikon lenses, and with equivalent focus tracking to the D500, it would be quickly and amazingly competitive. Who would pay for the A9 with its astronomically priced body and limited lenses, if they could buy a Nikon mirrorless body and use, say, the $200 35/1.8 or the outstanding and equally affordable 70-300, etc.?

    I’ve used a Nikon V1 mirrorless, and for many things it was quite amazing – very high IQ in good light, excellent focus tracking and exposure accuracy. But still, there would be a lot of room for improvement in a larger-sensor Nikon mirrorless camera. E.g., there was something just a little bit strange in how moving subjects looked when shot with the V1 in focus-tracking mode – they seemed just a tiny hair less than completely sharp, and in low light the skin tones went all to hell. But still, Nikon does stand a chance if it does the right thing. (Meanwhile, I’m quite happy with my current body, a Canon 6D, and the stupendous 24-105 and 135/f2 lenses).

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s