Olympus Camera Exit Is Unlikely the Last Shoe to Drop in a Struggling Industry

At the end of June, Olympus acknowledged that the rumors of its camera division’s demise had not been greatly exaggerated. Citing an “extremely severe” market in which the division posted a loss for three consecutive years, Olympus sold off its imaging division to Japan Industrial Partners (a deal which is expected to be finalized by the end of 2020).

Olympus was beset on all sides by severe challenges. Internally, the company was caught in a massive accounting scandal—one of the biggest in Japanese corporate history. Following the revelations of financial impropriety in 2011, Olympus lost roughly 80 percent of its value. Its fortunes did improve subsequent to the bombshell revelations, but even as the company was shoring up its internal operations, the camera division was buffeted by a larger and ultimately intractable macro force—namely, the historic collapse of the digital camera market.

In 2007, the year the iPhone was introduced, the global market for digital cameras sat at around 100 million. By 2018, the number of digital cameras sold worldwide had plunged to just 19 million.

Clearly something had to give.

Like all camera companies facing intense pressure from smartphone sales, Olympus did not sit idly by. Instead, it responded with a major investment in the Micro Four Thirds mirrorless platform. The company hoped the combination of advanced, pro-level features and compact form factors would entice casual photographers to step up from their smartphone cameras, while also giving professionals a more portable package compared to the bulky DSLRs they were accustomed to carrying.

Unfortunately, “step-up” consumers never materialized in large enough numbers and professionals wanted something that Olympus never delivered: a compact full-frame mirrorless system. Indeed, while most of its major competitors—including fellow Micro Four Thirds co-founder Panasonic—introduced mirrorless cameras with full-frame sensors, Olympus held out, arguing that there was still value in a more compact camera system with professional-grade features. Compared to Sony, which pivoted hard (and profitably) toward the professional market and full-frame cameras, Olympus was unable (or unwilling) to fundamentally reinvest in a new platform.

Japan Industrial Partners intends to keep the Olympus brand alive, but with camera sales on track for new lows in 2020, further restructurings and spin-offs among other storied brands seems inevitable. The “camerapocalypse” may truly be upon us.