Kimio Maki, Senior General Manager at Division 2 of Sony's Digital Imaging Business Group, pictured at the Photo Plus Expo in New York, on October 25th 2013

[photo: Barnaby Britton]

Kimio Maki is something of a legend within Sony, and is considered the 'father' of several important products. These include the RX-series of digital cameras -  the groundbreaking RX100 / II and RX1 / R - and also the new Alpha A7 and A7R, which bring full-frame imaging to the mirrorless interchangeable lens market. We caught up with him at this year's Photo Plus Expo in New York.

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DPReview's questions are in yellow italics, and please note that this interview has been edited for clarity from our original audio recording.  

What was the first camera that you consider your personal ‘project’?

It was a camcorder - Hi 8, that was 25 years ago. I also worked on the world’s smallest camcorder at the time, the PC7 - a passport-style camcorder which became a hit model all over the world. Then, after that I went into marketing and worked in the UK to sell the product. It was easy to sell! After that, I came back to Japan to work as a product planner, then back to engineering where I worked on the Cyber-shot WX1.

The Cyber-shot WX1 was released in 2009, and was Sony's first compact to offer a back-illuminated CMOS sensor. The RX100 was Sony's first compact to feature a 1-inch sensor. Although relatively expensive compared to more conventional high-end compacts, the RX100 impressed us with its image quality. Click here for our review

More recently I started work on the RX-series. The smartphone market is expanding at the moment, so we have to make some differentiation between smartphones and camera systems. So we decided to develop a new imaging sensor - 1 inch.  Previously, premium compacts were using 1/1.7in sensors, but they didn't give good enough image quality for me. Fortunately, we’re Sony - number one manufacturer of imaging sensors in the world! I asked the top manager of the sensor team for help, he agreed to help me, and we created the sensor for the RX100.

You were very lucky you had his support!

Yes! But the most important things are to be honest, straightforward and charming. Charm is important. I say to them ‘please - if you create the sensor I will commit to make a great product’. 

It must have been a risk, how did you know it would work?

I’m not a genius, and I’m not God, but I knew the potential of the 1 inch imaging sensor. The quality of the still images it would create, in conjunction with movie, it was well-balanced. The image quality is completely different to the previous generation of high-end compact sensors. I was convinced, and I had the confidence that we could beat them.

Unfortunately, the timing was late - many premium compacts were already on the market, and my boss said ‘you’re too late - it could be great, but you’ll have to rush’. I got a lot of pressure from my boss! When I released the RX100 to the market, my commitment to my boss was ‘I will make the customers love this product - this kind of product has never existed before, please wait and see what happens’. 

In the United States, the response from customers initially wasn’t great, but eventually, influential people started saying ‘it’s a great camera’.

Phones are getting ever-better cameras, cameras are incorporating more communication features - how does it end?

We are currently in a trial period. I look at data from customers who are using smartphones, especially those who are only using smartphones to take pictures, who have never used a true digital camera, and aren’t interested. They say ‘I don’t need a digital camera because I can use my smartphone’. We might say ‘the picture quality isn’t good enough’ but they just say ‘well it’s good enough for me to put on Facebook.’ They want to get the image onto their smartphone, and not a computer, because they’re not using a computer. The smartphone is their computer, they want all their data on their phones, that’s the demand - especially from people under 20.  

So I took that information, and decided to create a better camera than a conventional compact. I split the audience into two sections - the older generation and the younger. The younger customers demand better pictures to get more positive feedback from their peers - more ‘likes’ on Facebook. But a conventional digital still camera might not fit their lifestyle. They want to keep on using a smartphone type interface and have their images on their phones. So we decided to create the QX-series for that audience - the younger generation. 

The QX100 has the same image quality as the RX100 but the image goes straight to the phone.

When I was a child there was one camera in my house - my dad bought it and we shared it. But now, everyone takes pictures. My boss is 55 years old, and when I showed the QX10 to him he said ‘I don’t understand it at all - why do I need to use this?’ I said ‘sorry, you’re not the target user!’ Depending on the generation, the user experience is different and the motivation behind taking pictures is completely different too. Younger people aren’t comparing the QX-series to the RX100 or RX1.  

The Sony QX10 and QX100 camera modules are designed to be used with smartphones, and can either be clipped on, or positioned remotely. Click the image for more coverage, both on and our sister site

On the other hand, the kind of customer I had in mind for the RX100 and RX1 products was someone who wants to be able to carry the best image quality possible in their pocket or bag. People who think that current DSLRs are too big. With the RX1, I went to the engineers and said ‘I want to put a full-frame imaging sensor into the RX100 - is that possible?’ and they laughed. They thought I was joking. But I thought we could do it, and I started to convince people, and we started to work on creating the RX1.

The concept of the RX1 is simply to create the best image quality that we can in camera you might use walking around, in everyday situations, for weekend snapshots… I didn’t want to use an APS-C format sensor or anything smaller. I want to get the best picture quality. Personally I wanted a great camera for the weekends, but existing full-frame cameras were too big for me. So that was the challenge when creating the RX1. 

The Sony Cyber-shot RX1 (and the RX1R, released later, which is identical except for the omission of an anti-aliasing filter on the camera's sensor) features a 24MP full-frame CMOS sensor and a 35mm F2 Carl Zeiss lens. 

Click here to read our review

The RX10 is different - that's the camera I wanted for events, like sport, when my children are playing soccer and basketball. The lenses on the RX100 and RX1 aren’t long enough for that. Also for movies - as you know we use every pixel on the sensor for video recording, therefore the movie quality is better than some professional video systems. 

When you create products like the Cyber-shot RX10, do you consider price point?

I only think about the product. Of course, inexpensive is better, but the most important thing is quality of the pictures and the movie files. That is the priority, not price. 

How do you send the message that the RX10 is worth the extra cost over something like Panasonic’s FZ200?

Well, I always say our sensor is completely different, also the lens is great. The combination of a 1-inch back-illuminated sensor with a great 24-200mm lens… if the lens was 24-300mm or 24-400mm it would be BIG. That's not a good concept in my opinion. 

Sony's Cyber-shot RX10 combines the 20MP 1"-type BSI-CMOS sensor from the RX100 II with a 24-200mm Zeiss Vario-Sonnar zoom lens, with a constant maximum aperture of F2.8. Despite its large sensor and fast lens, physically the RX10 compares well to more conventional (small-sensor) superzoom cameras. But at $1300, it does cost considerably more.

Some customers will certainly look at the RX10 simply as another bridge camera and think that it’s quite expensive. But that’s a misunderstanding that we have to solve. The question is how will we get customers to recognize the benefits of this product - for that we rely on our friends in the media!

When you’re designing your cameras, what’s your image of the customer that you’re making a product for?

I imagine a customer with a good knowledge of camera systems, experience in using digital SLRs, an expert who knows SLRs and lenses, and maybe thinks that that equipment is a little big to carry around. Someone like that might be attracted to an RX-series product.  

How do your two interchangeable lens camera systems - E / FE-mount and A-mount mesh together? In the future, how will the relationship between those two systems evolve?

Basically, the role of the two mounts is different. We can make E mount cameras and lenses smaller than A-mount. But for A mount we can realize superior image quality with better new technologies. Both systems exist under ‘Alpha’ and both are created with the same philosophy - to create something new, which never existed before. That is the main thing in my mind. That is Sony. That is the mission. To make people say ‘wow’ and to surprise them - to drive the customers’s imagination. That is my dream and that is our mission at Sony. The Sony spirit goes back to our founders, Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka.

Do you still have a problem with brand recognition? Is there still some snobbery on the part of customers that Sony is an electronics company and not a camera company? 

That’s a big challenge for me. I was speaking to a Japanese newspaper and I told them ‘I hate being called an electronics company that makes cameras’. People think Sony and they think televisions and Walkmans, that’s the image. No-one says ‘camera manufacturer’. But I will let them know - we ARE a camera manufacturer. One of the best. With the RX-series things started to change, and we’re getting there gradually. Now, everyone in the industry is starting to say ‘Sony is creating great cameras’. We’re going to keep on doing it, and keep on creating products that no-one has created before. 

Why do you think that Sony is the only company making cameras like the RX-series and the A7 / A7R?

Our company philosophy of creating new products, of course, plus a fighting spirit. We are a challenger. We are not kings in this industry. In professional broadcasting we’re one of the biggest companies, but in the still imaging industry we’re still challengers, so we have the freedom to experiment. 

The Sony A7 and A7R are the world's first consumer-oriented full-frame mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. Both cameras are compatible with existing E-mount lenses for NEX in APS-C capture mode, but Sony has also announced a range of new FE-mount lenses for full-frame imaging. 

Click here to read our detailed announcement coverage. 

In terms of interchangeable lens cameras, the biggest companies of course are Canon and Nikon, they have the legacy support, so in order to attract customers we have to give them a good reason to come to Sony. So we’re trying to make cameras which are desirable in addition to maybe a Canon or Nikon system. And in order for us to do that we have to create unique cameras that Canon and Nikon don’t offer.  

Sony's background is in consumer electronics. We research customer desires, and we capture their imaginations. Of course, professional photographers are using Canon and Nikon, and it’s not easy to get them to use our Alpha SLT cameras. But Cyber-shot is not an interchangeable lens system, it’s fixed, so it’s easier to get them to use. That’s the trigger. We’ve broken the ice. Then with cameras liken the RX100 and RX1 we break it down further. This is the first stage, sending the message.  

Do you share research or expertise with the smartphone teams within Sony?

Yes of course, all the time. The camera system in our Experia phones is designed by our engineers. We exchange engineering knowledge and technology between the camera division and phone teams. We work together. 

Some recent Sony cameras have featured ‘apps’ that can be downloaded to the camera - how do you see this evolving?

Some recent Sony cameras, like the NEX-6, have Wi-Fi built in, and are compatible with Sonys PlayMemories 'App store'. This gives you the ability to add features to the camera.

We recently opened up the API so anyone can create applications for Sony QX and Alpha system camera systems now, distributed through Sony. It’s an ongoing process.  

What are Sony’s biggest opportunities in the next five years? 

I want to keep creating innovations. I have lots of ideas in my head - every six months I want to do something new, keep on running, and keep on creating new things that didn’t exist before. Products based on customer demand.  

It seems like your philosophy with the RX-series cameras is to sell maybe fewer products of a higher quality, rather than sacrifice quality for more sales. That must be a real challenge. 

Yes. We have two segments, one is the mirror less segment which is smaller, and one is conventional DSLRs. Within the DSLR market you have the entry-level, smaller cheaper cameras like the Nikon D3200, and at the top there are high-end models like the Nikon D4 and Canon EOS 1D X. Until now, there was no ‘top end’ for mirrorless cameras - now that’s the A7R.

We’re creating a market, which is vital in this industry, otherwise the market will be squeezed. If a customer doesn’t see anything new, they won’t be motivated to buy additional cameras. For Sony to improve our brand image within the camera industry we need to use technology. We need to change the world.  

Do you think that full-frame sensors will ever be meaningfully cheaper? 

Sony is the number one manufacturer of imaging sensors, and if we can sell a lot of them, the price will come down!

Is there anything that worries you about Sony’s future in the camera industry?

Worry? I don’t have any worries at all right now! Seriously though, I do think about countermeasures from other manufacturers - so for example I think about whether Canon will create a product to compete with us. I’m interested in whether they will do this, because enhancing the market together is important. But that’s not a worry. What worries me is the market - what will happen if customers start to lose interest. If they just say ‘I don’t want a camera, a smartphone is good enough for me’. I don’t think it will happen, but it’s a concern.

I think people right now using smartphones will become eager for better picture quality, and as they get older, get married and have babies I expect they will probably want to buy a better camera.

I also believe that by continuing to create new things, that we can keep the industry vital. But as you know, everybody has their favorite camera. My dream is to satisfy everybody because everybody takes pictures. I wish I could tell you my ideas for the future but unfortunately I can’t right now!