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Olympus Has Fallen

A model poses with Olympus Corp’s OM-D E-M1 digital camera during its unveiling in Tokyo, Japan, September 10, 2013. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

I was sad to read that Japanese firm Olympus is selling its camera business to the private-equity firm Japanese Industrial Partners. The remaining part of Olympus focuses on medical imaging technology. The firm was under pressure from an American activist investor to dump its camera business, which has been in the red for three years.

Olympus cameras remind me of other great Japanese businesses, like Grand Seiko watches. They entered a field dominated by long-established European brands and manage to deliver better design and better value. Yoshihisa Maitani, who pioneered the PEN line of cameras in the 1960s and other hits up through the 1990s, has to be mentioned as one of the legendary product designers of the 20th century.

What happened to Olympus cameras? A couple of things. First, the whole digital-camera business has come under strain as smartphones cameras improve their image quality. Also, Olympus went through a very Japanese-style accounting scandal in 2011. Aimed at saving face, the company hid over $1 billion in losses. These losses severely constrained the imaging division’s ability to adapt in their market. Its legendary Tatsuno lens factory was shut down. Recently, Olympus moved production to Vietnam. Lastly, the smaller Micro Four Thirds format that Olympus shares with Panasonic and Sharp has been dependent on Sony for their sensors. Sony competes in another format and seems to have lost interest in pushing the limits of technology in Micro Four Thirds sensors. This is like a car company that relies on a rival for an engine.

It’s not at all clear what Japanese Industrial Partners plans to do with Olympus when it acquires it later this year. I’m seeing some hopeful speculation that JIP can restructure and streamline the business, keeping it going.  I’m also seeing just as much speculation that JIP will wind the entire business down, while it sells or licenses the company’s valuable patents.

But the dismemberment of a 84-year brand that had a profound effect on the culture around it is just sad. It’s also unclear where an Olympus fan would go. I think all the cameras need is an updated sensor. And there will still be value in their lenses for some time. Even with this news, which portends a possible cessation of support, I still can’t think of any gear I’d rather use than Olympus. Even their long-discontinued film lenses have a real appeal.

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