Sony Electronics President and COO Phil Molyneux holding the NEX-6, the company's latest APS-C camera.

Dpreview recently attended a press trip organized by Sony, where the Japanese manufacturer showcased its newest Cyber-shot, NEX and Alpha models. During the trip we had the exclusive opportunity to sit down with Phil Molyneux, President and Chief Operating Officer of Sony Electronics.

In a wide-ranging interview Molyneux spoke with us about the company's new relationships with Olympus and Hasselblad, the impact of smartphone proliferation on the camera market and Sony's place in the market alongside Canon and Nikon. Also joining the discussion was Mark Weir, Senior Manager of Technology and Marketing at Sony.


Sony recently entered into a partnership with Olympus, and has invested $397 million dollars into the company. What do you make of the well-publicized accounting scandal and the potential U.S. Dept. of Justice investigation of Olympus?

That's been going on for some time now and I don't really want to dive in deep there but that needs to play out and (have) the right conclusions drawn. I'm sure they will be.
 
We've put together this capital investment with Olympus looking at the synergy between the two companies. Olympus has core assets and IP that help some of the work we're doing in digital imaging. On the other side, the technology we have in image sensors, processors and optics is also a good fit. There's a lot to explore there in terms of value.

What impact will the relationship with Olympus have on Sony product development?

We have a strategic intention to build out our business within the medical industry. We see that as a core pillar for the future. The alignment with Olympus is a really good fit because they're in the medical industry for endoscopy. We have core technology that they don't have in terms of sensors, processors and optics as well as a great heritage in 3D and now 4K [video]. If we look long term, the mutual benefits are there and that's the primary intention.

This is a capital investment where we work together. Olympus has IP that can help our future digital imaging products potentially. We have image sensors that is our core competency. So you put the two together and there is benefit for both sides.

Can we expect this partnership with Olympus to help narrow the gap in lens selection between E-mount and Micro Four Thirds optics?

We're early into this new arrangement. I don't want to speculate into those areas. In due course we'll be sharing more details.

At the recent Photokina show in Cologne, Sony announced a partnership with Hasselblad, and a forthcoming product - the Hasselblad Lunar camera. What does Sony get out of this relationship?

The relationship here is about the supply of components from our side. We're a major player in the image sensor market. Our technology will help support not only Hasselblad but many other companies, as they do today.

The Hasselblad Lunar uses the E-mount and other technology found on Sony's NEX-7 camera.

You now have relationships that, on some level, tie together the success of Sony, Olympus, and now Hasselblad. Are there challenges in maintaining such public relationships with rival camera manufacturers?

I don't believe so. Olympus has their own position in the market. Hasselblad has been in the premium digital imaging market for many years. Sony has been a constant innovator. There is opportunity to co-exist and prosper but cross-leverage capabilities that bring mutual benefit to each of the parties involved. Outside the digital imaging world Sony has had similar relationships with other companies like Sharp and Samsung. So it's not an uncommon thing for us to do. We've been doing this for a few years now.

What are Sony's challenges in the mass market digital imaging space over the next few years?

The proliferation of the smartphone has put pressure on the entry-level camera segment of the industry as a whole. But we also have a line of smartphones. And the key is that we're using Sony image sensors and optics in these smartphones.

Smartphones and social media have made photography very popular with a younger generation. And that's very promising because they are getting to grips with the beauty of photographs. As these younger people grow up, a few of them will fall in love with photography, want to take it to a different level and understand the limitations of a smartphone and a point-and-shoot and therefore step up to super zoom, E-mount or possibly even A-mount cameras in the future.

From Sony's perspective, because we have a full line of cameras as well as smartphones, this is a positive trend, one that we're embracing. So if you talk about self-cannibalization, that's perhaps one way to view it, but that's not a negative. We're growing new fans of photography who could buy more versatile products from Sony in the future.

We're seeing camera apps and Wi-Fi becoming more common in cameras now. Nikon and Samsung are making Android-powered cameras. Will any camera that's not 'connected' be obsolete?

At this stage I don't believe that's the case at all. A lot of people are using our E-mount and A-mount products to produce pictures that hang on the wall or are displayed in galleries. We're not at the stage where consumers are going to invest in this level of technology and use it solely for uploading to social media.

How will Xperia smartphones and Cyber-shots cameras continue to co-exist? Will they have to merge?

With our image sensor, processor and optics technology used in the Xperia models, we can drive the value of the phones forward. But there's still a significant gap in capability, quality and output between smartphones and the mid-range to high-end Cyber-shot cameras. Smartphones today are hitting the entry level compact camera. We're helping that happen and consumers are embracing it.

Understand that this young generation of smartphone users, if you go back five years ago, would pick up a camera maybe once a year on holiday and that's it. They're now using photography every single day. That's a very good sign for the future of digital imaging. Because they will want to do more. Not all of them, but a subsection of that community will want to do more.

There will be a race between smartphones and compact cameras to improve features and capabilities. We have the assets and technology to drive advances in both products to give consumers what they need. That's our mission. But even if the pace of change remains the same between smartphone and compact cameras, there are still issues of miniaturization that allow compact cameras to do things that smartphones cannot. There is still a gap in quality, performance and manipulation. The point in time at which the gap between a smartphone and a point-and-shoot or a superzoom is no longer perceived as value by the consumer will be the tipping point. But we're playing both worlds, so I don't see it as a negative.

How far out is that tipping point?

I wouldn't speculate on a time frame.

For years the industry has been pushing megapixels as a defining feature. Now there is an increased focus on sensor size and fast lenses. How are you going to wean consumers away from a sticker-friendly spec like megapixels?

The megapixel race was a good thing. It stimulated competition and speed of design, manufacturing and output. But that's a small part of what we bring into our products.


Mark Weir: There are consumers with limited awareness who perhaps latch onto a megapixel number. But even those consumers are getting to the point where enough is enough, particularly when it comes to file size.

A big feature request from our readers for a NEX-7 successor is a touchscreen. Given that a touchscreen is also absent from the NEX-6, do you see having an EVF and touchscreen as contradictory?

MW:It is contradictory. We believe that a user who buys a camera with an OLED EVF is concentrating on the shooting experience and wants to have everything at their fingertips by direct button control. We believe their interest in touchscreen capability is far less than the user who shoots with the camera held at arm's length.

The Sony NEX-6 features an EVF, but forgoes the touchscreen capability found in the NEX-5R.

But why not offer both, like Olympus does in the E-M5?

MW: There's nothing that prevents us from having both an EVF and touchscreen. But it's our design philosophy that prioritizes the eye-level shooting style for the NEX-6 and NEX-7.

Looking at the VG900, our readers are speculating on whether you will make a full frame E-mount stills-oriented camera. What can you say to them?

MW: The VG900 demonstrated that the E-mount lens mount can support a full frame sensor. Building the lenses that can cover a full frame imaging circle at that flange back distance is another matter. We'll see. The benefits of making a smaller camera with a full frame sensor and interchangeable lenses are clear. The E-mount that could do that would be a little different than the E-mount that we know today. But it is possible. Much of the lens geometry you see in the RX1 is what it would take to realize that design.

With the RX1, how much demand do you expect for a $2800 fixed lens camera?

MW: We won't disclose what our forecast numbers are, but the response from retailers with pre-orders has been overwhelmingly positive. As for the price, with the NEX-7, many said, 'Who will pay $1400 for a mirrorless camera?' Look what happened. With the RX100, many said, 'Who would spend $650 on a so-called point-and-shoot camera?'. Part of what comes with disruptive technology is a change in the way people think about what consumers are interested in buying.

The A99 becomes the first pro-level SLT camera. Are pros ready to give up an optical viewfinder?

PM: We're being disruptive. Part of the appeal of being disruptive is that pros see that we're being innovative and want to explore what Sony has to offer.

Why should someone buy a Sony camera over a brand like Canon or Nikon?

We have the core technology inside of the company, in terms of image sensors, processors and optics. I think we're the only company that has a mass production and R&D capability in all three areas. We're able to use that capability along with our design skills to bring disruptive products to market. Customers are starting to embrace Sony for innovation and disruptive technologies. We've done that with the E-mount line and we're taking it to a whole new plane with the RX-1, the first full frame camera at that size in the world.

There are companies like Canon and Nikon that have been in this marketplace 60+ years. And the market has traditionally been very slow to change, diversify or innovate. We're relatively new to it, but boy have we been disruptive. Sony is changing the market through innovation and giving consumers more choice.