Why Olympus is like Nintendo

Olympus PEN-F and Nintendo Switch

Olympus PEN-F and Nintendo Switch

Our recent purchase of the Switch and the accompanied resurgent Nintendo, got me thinking. There are many similarities between Nintendo and my favorite camera company, Olympus.

First, there are the easy comparisons. Both companies are pioneers in their respective industries, but are relatively small compared to their competition. Interestingly, both Olympus and Nintendo compete against Sony, among other rivals. Both are Japanese companies that have been around for a while. Olympus started in 1919 building microscopes. Nintendo started even earlier, in 1889, making Japanese playing cards.

Dig deeper and you discover that both companies are more creative, compared to their competition, and both have noteworthy and visionary leaders who had an outsized influence on their companies.

• • •

Let’s start with Nintendo. As an early pioneer, after the downfall of Atari, Nintendo created a string of unique video game systems. Not all of them have been successful, but they usually push the boundaries in innovation. Starting with the Famicom or NES, they later introduced the Gameboy portable gaming system. The Nintendo 64 brought 3D graphics to the mainstream and the breakthrough Wii appealed to casual gamers.

While rivals Sony and Microsoft continue to bring out more powerful systems, they don’t break any new ground with their hardware or games. They merely add more pixels and processing to create more realistic iterations of the same games.

Nintendo, in addition to unique hardware, creates completely new types of games. Many are family friendly, instead of merely pushing more movie realistic violent “shooter” games. Much of the game innovation is due to Shigeru Miyamoto who created Donkey Kong, Mario and The Legend of Zelda. No other video game company has a designer as influential as Miyamoto-san.

• • •

Olympus is a world leader in endoscopes and other medical equipment. But for this post, I’m concentrating on their camera business. The best that I can tell, there was nothing unique about Olympus’cameras until 1959, when they broke ground with the revolutionary and affordable 1/2 frame Pen. Since then, Olympus has constantly strived to create smaller and more friendly cameras for the average photographer. While Nikon and Canon were more focused towards the professionals, models like the Pen, Pen FT, OM and XA where smaller, quality cameras for the masses.

All of these ground breaking cameras were designed by Yoshihisa Maitani. And if you look at the subsequent Stylus film cameras or the lines of digital cameras, you can see the small camera DNA that Maitani-san started. More recently, Olympus was the first company to create a purpose-built DSLR, the 4/3 system that started with the E-1. Along the way, Olympus was an early pioneer in Live View, anti-dust sensor shake systems and in-body image stabilization. So, Olympus making smaller, high performance cameras did not start with micro 4/3 mirrorless. This was merely a fine tuning of a philosophy they had since 1959.

• • •

As these brief histories show, both companies have continuously invented new things. Much of it, due to the strong influence of their visionary leaders, Miyamoto of Nintendo and Maitani of Olympus. While their worthy competition merely iterates by making faster hardware, pushing pixels, both for video games and cameras, the innovative companies changed their respective worlds. What would the video game industry be without Nintendo? What would the camera industry be without Olympus?

I’ve always had a soft spot for underdog, innovative companies. There’s Olympus and Nintendo, of course, but way before them, I started using Apple. Since 1981, years before the Macintosh, I used an Apple II. Until recently, Apple’s always been a scrappy, alternative underdog. Apple has long been an innovator and it took a long time until the world noticed. Of course, Steve Jobs was Apple’s visionary leader, who is in fine company with Yoshihisa Maitani and Shigeru Miyamoto.

Long live the innovators. Here’s to the people and the companies that dare to do something different.

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