VMLP 2: Sony–The Revenge of Minolta, the Re-birth of the Cool

I have before me a Minolta Maxxum 5D camera and a Sony a100. The a100 was a pandemic buy—I hadn’t planned to buy another digital camera because the Olympus e300 works fine for testing manual lenses. The a100 was the first A-mount camera Sony made after buying Minolta’s camera IP. I wanted to see first-hand what Sony did with Minolta’s legacy. The a100 popped up for 60.00 with all the original materials, the kit lens, an extra lens, and batteries, so why not? Sitting the cameras side-by-side, their resemblance is so similar that I often suspect that if I apply a little steam to the word “Sony,” I will find “Minolta” underneath. All my Maxxum lenses fit and work fine. The cameras feel nearly the same.

Sony could have done what many corporations do when buying up failing companies—keep the useful stuff and sell off the rest. However, Sony kept the “Alpha” marketing name Minolta used for the Japanese market and two years later produced a digital camera that used the film camera mount! The Minolta name was gone, but its technology was front and center. Sony started behind the DSLR market leaders, but it has produced great cameras over the last 14 years while making mirrorless cameras respectable. All those Minolta engineers and designers brought their creativity and desire to innovate to Sony.  

Minolta introduced many innovations and won camera-of-the-year awards. But it seems the 127 million dollar patent loss to Honeywell, the all-in on APS cameras, and the Maxxum xi series put the company in a poor competitive position. Consequently, Minolta didn’t have the resources to slug it out in the rapidly growing digital market. The Maxxum 5D and 7D, while great cameras, were too little done too late. 

In early 2006, Minolta and Sony signed a technology-sharing pact, that six months later, to everyone’s surprise, became a permanent transfer of camera intellectual property. After 78 years, Minolta, founded in Osaka, Japan in 1928 as Nichi-Doku Shahshinki Shoten (Japanese-German camera shop), stopped making cameras. This sale could have been the unceremonious demise of a creative, spunky company with a lot of heart and one that saw Minolta’s legacy fade into the past. It could have been a loss that one commiserates with others, as one would the loss of a friend, over drinks —but that’s not how this story ends. 

Looking down the years since 2006–when the a100 was released–one sees Sony add new A-mount technologies. In 2010, single-lens translucent technology (SLT) introduced a fixed mirror design and brought video, an electronic viewfinder, and phase-detection autofocus to Sony’s DSLR models. Next, Sony, taking a chance in true Minolta fashion, introduced E-mount cameras, and was met promptly with smirking and disdain—the general sentiment being that mirrorless cameras would never be the equal of DSLRs. Mirrorless not only caught on but is rapidly displacing DSLRs. The smirks are gone, and Sony is doing just fine.  

I like to think that those Minolta engineers helped push the envelope, getting Sony to take a few chances. After all, no guts, no glory. E-mount cameras are certainly not repeats of APS or xi missteps. As happens in life—you place some bets, you take some chances—and, right now, Sony’s bets are paying off. The former smirkers have released mirrorless cameras. And if you think Sony has forgotten its Minolta roots, the LA-EA5 Adapter, announced in early September, provides autofocus support for every A-mount lens produced since 1985. For legacy SAM and SSM lenses, it supports advanced focusing features comparable to native E-mount lenses. I think it’s safe to say that the sale of Minolta’s camera IP was as much heart transplant as technology transfer. Minolta’s nearly century-old legacy lives on, and all of my A-Mount lenses will work when I get my E-mount camera. I’m good.  

Sipping my bourbon, listening to Miles’ trumpet ask impertinently, “So What?“—I don’t know how those former Minolta engineers feel, but I know how I do. Miles’ trumpet rises, joking with Cannonball Adderly’s sax; Philly Joe Jones’ drums jump in with a few wisecracks. Hanging out, enjoying good times—Sony the revenge of Minolta, the re-birth of the cool.***

***
The Birth of the Cool is a jazz album released in 1953. It consists of Miles Davis’ recordings captured in 1949 and 1950, and those recordings are considered seminal works of cool jazz.  

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