leica and the art of innovation



Masters of innovation
 A  recent article in The Economist discussed the spectacular comeback of Apple as California's master of innovation. In a nutshell the article states that Apple is re-inventing itself from an iconic cult computer maker to a successful consumer-electronics firm, that still inspires an almost religious fervor among its customers. Four lessons can be learned.

The first is that innovation can come from within, but also from without. Apple is not so much an innovator in the Edison or Bell tradition, but its skill lies in stitching together its own ideas with technologies from without and wrapping up the result in an elegant design and smart software. This approach is not new, but is widely known as network innovation, and is a fine antidote to the not-invented here syndrome.
The second lesson lies in the adoption of a design model around the needs of the consumer, not around the demands of technology. The pursuit of simplicity has also become the goal of a large company like Philips. 
The third lesson is that listening to consumers is a good thing, but not the whole story. For all the talk of user-centric innovation and allow feedback from customers to dictate new product designs, you sometimes need to ignore what the market says it wants today. If Leitz had followed the rule of user feedback as the dominant force in decision making, we would never had seen the Leica I and subsequent models.
The fourth lesson is to fail wisely. Learning from mistakes and trying again is not the rule in Europe's companies, but Apple showed that failures can become important lessons for developing new products.
So buy in clever ideas, pursue simplicity, ignore focus groups and fail wisely. That are the ingredients of success, but also of failure and you need a visionary like Jobs to steer the company to its goals.
Parallels between Apple and Leica
There are parallels in the ups and downs of Apple and the ups and downs of Leica. Apple created the first  personal computer with a smart graphical user interface, as Leitz created the first 35mm compact and precision camera with a smart mechanical user interface, so smart that artists and photographers could design a new vision and a new style in photography.
Apple quickly created a cult following, but stayed in its niche too long and with the OS 9 operating system as a sole basis for success, became marginalized and was losing money in such vast amounts that the company must be sold out or go bust.
The parallel with Leica is again obvious. Leica stayed too long in its niche of M-models, that had and have a small band of cult followers and R-models that were and are difficult to sell because of its lack of features that consumers want to have.
Jobs understood that vision about the emerging digital life and strategic realism had to be combined and designed new products with simplicity as the rule and a tight integration of hardware and software as the base. So Apple switched to Intel processors and created a suite of i-products, that are a joy  to use and own. ( I am writing this on a Wintel machine by the way, but I also use Apple notebooks, including the Parallels software to use XP programs).
Leica is now at a point where Apple was in 2001/2002 before the launch of OS 10.
Will Leica learn the four lessons of Apple and innovate themselves?
 Buying in clever ideas? The Digital Module for R was not a clever idea and the M8 cannot be interpreted as a new product. Basically it is an M7 adapted to digital capture. The design started in 2002, as has been revealed by the product manager in a recent press column. It took the company four years to finish the design and market the M8. Is it the master of simplicity that the M3 once was?
Simplicity and elegance of design
 The reliance on Capture One as the post processing software of choice and the incorporation into the camera of JPEG software makes the camera not simple to use. I would have opted for a single Raw mode (and not DNG) and throw out all internal algorithms for in-camera post processing, like sharpening and contrast. There is an abundance of (even free) software that does a fine job in converting Raw images.  This approach would copy the classical film-based analogy: the camera just captures the image and the silver halide guys and chemical developer guys do the rest: they are good at that.
The lens-body coupling with the sensor strip is not smart: you force Leica users to buy new bayonet rings and you leave all Voigtlander and Zeiss lenses out of scope. It would have been simpler to let the user select in a menu item what lens is attached to the camera body. There are less than a hundred M-lenses in the market and a simple three-digit code would allow for thousand  and more lens types. The basics are already in place: you have to select manually in the menu the choice for the IR-filter.
Ignore focus groups and fail wisely
Ignore focus groups and dare to fail wisely? Well, within Leica  there is an overzealousness to please user groups and the Leica strategy, as explained in recent interviews, seems to be primarily focused on trying to avoid to fail. That is not the fertile ground one wishes for creating new products.

A first step would be to incorporate into the strategy a few failures to learn from and to allow the engineers and designers to think of future products that do not only please the current base of 2006, but that will please new customers in 2008 and 2010. But just extrapolating from trends seen today will not do. In the recent past Leica was obsessed with the idea of shareholder value, but the new owner wants to withdraw Leica from the stock market and has expressed the desire to invest money into the company.  That should help.
Easy predictions
 In a recent issue of the German Fotomagazin, there is an article about the 'secret plans' of Leica product development. Not exactly that, but a guestimate by a journalist with good connections   within the company. He looks through his crystal ball into  the content of interviews with Leica managers. What does he predict?: an M9 and an R10, daring and creative. The M9 is the current M8 with 16 Mb sensor as you will also find in the R10. The M9 (probability rating 90%!) has 16 Mb on the same sensor size as the current M8, will have a Live View function, electronic rangefinder support or an electronic finder as an accessory device. The M8 will stay in production but now as an a-la-carte model (probability rating 95%). A digital CM is also predicted but with a PR of only 30%. With a PR of 90% we will see a new R10 in the current body shape of the R9, but with 16 Mb sensor and  AF lenses. In the past we had the R and RE series of bodies, so there will also be an R10E (PR of 50%).
You do not need a heavy infusion of creativity to predict this range. Most ideas are part of the swarm intelligence of the internet. These concepts are often simply transferred from Canon or Olympus models into the Leica world, disregarding any technical complexity or feasibility or pricing or production problems. The long gestation period of the M8 might be cited as a reminder that engineering is not as easy as wishful thinking.
More importantly however is the observation that all proposed features fall squarely into the category of model updates to align the product to current or perceived trends.
Let us hope that the designs that Leica might be contemplating for the next five years will show more forward thinking and will reposition Leica as an innovator in digital photography, the role they once had in film-based photography. Apple re-invented itself by not listening to their current user base, and by focusing on markets that were not saturated as will be the market for digital cameras in a few years. New Leica products are stated to arrive on the market during the next two Fotokina's and that is exactly the period that the digital camera market is starting to decline. Exciting products may draw attention, but me-too products are doomed.