Don't Bet on Firmware Additions

One thing I had hoped for when both market demand and the pandemic began slowing down new camera releases was that we might see camera makers take some engineering staff and backfill outstanding feature requests (e.g. firmware updates). Technically, that would increase the shelf life of the products, something all the camera companies will need to do given the slow rollout of new products.

Unfortunately, of the last 100 mirrorless camera firmware updates I've tracked, only 30 added what I would call a significant feature, though many of those were simply providing something that had been previously promised (i.e. announced but unavailable at launch). Truly new features, such as Nikon's Portrait impression balance—which is curiously missing in the Z9 despite having been added to the Z6 II and Z7 II—were fairly rare in firmware updates. 

Stability, slight performance enhancement, and bug fixing was the primary focus of most of those last 100 firmware updates across the mirrorless manufacturers. All things that would have come up through the customer support system as complaints. So I guess they do listen, though that listening seems carefully filtered.

As I was doing my counting, an email came in that said "I think Nikon and Canon stopped innovating 15 years ago: we just keep getting higher-resolution sensors all the time. That's all. Not fewer dials, no touch-panels for focus and spot-metering, no important reduction in weight and size, no actual silent shutters, extremely expensive lenses, silly and clumsy pop-up flashes or none at all."

While I don't agree with some of the details in that email, the underlying premise is indeed one that's becoming more and more common in comments about dedicated cameras these days: where's the real progress from a photographer standpoint? For the most part, new things are dribbling out rather than gushing out, and much of that is just some refinement of something that's already good enough (e.g. more pixels). 

In putting together my Z9 review and book, I've been looking very closely at what Nikon thinks "is the new flagship." There are, indeed, a few new paths being paved with the Z9. The lack of a mechanical shutter and the (mostly) blackout free viewfinder were two nice steps forward, though not without penalty. The subject detection in the autofocus system has taken a leap forward, but I still need to control it. 

However, coupled with the steps forward Nikon's left a bit of a mess behind. Besides not implementing some of the things they've pioneered in other cameras—the aforementioned Portrait impression balance is just one—their attempt at improving the menu system mostly fails. Yes, toggle on and off was a nice touch (literally). No, having viewfinder items sprawling across three menus and two Custom Settings groups is not. For some unknown reason, the Z9 menus now change the word "images" to "pictures," which just makes some menu names get longer in a design that doesn't like long names. The bank system and settings saving hasn't really been improved in 15 years, and it needed fixing 15 years ago, not bandaids like Extended menu banks. Features such as Multiple exposure and HDR overlay (the new name) have had abilities removed. Indeed, looking through the Z9 menus you find that the so-called flagship doesn't really add anything, kept things that needed fixing, drops things that people were using, and then muddles everything up with some new disorganization of a system that had been one of the better organized. 

I have a list of over 40 things that need addressing in firmware on the Z9 to clean the mess up, and another two dozen feature requests. What are the odds that I'll see all of the issues dealt with, let alone any added features? 

You'd think that the odds would be high. After all, a flagship tends to have to endure for four years on the market, and the market has slowed considerably, so maybe it's longer now. However, I think the odds are low. First, Nikon still needs to provide the features announced with the Z9 that aren't yet available (mostly in the video side of the camera). Second, I'm not sure they clearly see how to simplify, organize, and add to the UX of the camera. Moreover, how do you address the fact that you have a button and dial that do the same thing (Release Mode), but the hardware implementation of the dial isn't complete? 

Curiously, we have Nikon making the wrong solution to the right problem, too. The whole WR-R11a came about because the old WR-R10 kept breaking when the camera was roughly handled. At least it bends when hit now ;~). But why isn't the whole wireless remote system just built into the flagship in the first place? And only four channels? 

While I'm picking on Nikon and the Z9 here, I could do the same thing for virtually every camera on the market right now. And Lloyd Chambers recently pointed out a feature—Frame Averaging—that ought to be in every camera, but only exists in crude form in a few. As he points out, it's low hanging fruit. Apparently so low hanging that Nikon once picked it, but now prefers to go looking for a ladder.

I'm not holding out for any significant firmware updates to come along, though. The Japanese camera makers are all in "sell a box" mode, and that means that they think they have to come up with a new product in a new box. The problem is that their imagination and their understanding of the customer that's still buying seem to be incredibly lacking. 

When Fujifilm was in a race to catch up with Canikony, Fujifilm was issuing firmware updates regularly with new features. Many customers misunderstood that to be a commitment to improving existing products. Nope, it was a race to catch up in the feature race, and to be able to check all the same marketing tick boxes as Canikony. 

However, what Canon, Nikon, and Sony didn't seem to notice is how much customer satisfaction all that feature adding was giving Fujifilm. Fujifilm's reputation was enhanced by simply adding things that were expected. Heaven forbid that any of the camera companies were to start adding things that weren't expected, but useful and welcome!

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Update: I don't know how this will turn out in terms of updates, but Nikon has my full list of Z9 firmware issues, plus several specific and repeatable bug reports I've filed. They seem sincere in analyzing these and addressing real issues. That said, my list of firmware additions wasn't commented on. Which sort of supports my point.

Update: redacted a slur in the email quote.

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