Sony invests $642 million in Olympus, what’s it mean for photographers?

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posted Friday, September 28, 2012 at 1:44 PM EDT

After months of rumors about potential partners for financially troubled Olympus Corporation, and weeks of speculation that the successful suitor was Sony, the new partnership is finally official. Olympus announced today that they'd accepted Sony's offer to invest roughly ¥50 billion (about $642 billion) between October 23 of this year and February 28, 2013. The investment will come in two tranches, one on October 23, and the remainder coming sometime between October 23 and February 28, as the companies can address anti-trust requirements in various countries. 

The deal is structured as an investment by Sony in Olympus stock, by which they'll end up owning about 11.5% of Olympus. The principle motivation for Sony is to gain entry into the medical device business, an area where Olympus has excelled. Olympus dominates the endoscope business, with a 70% share of the global market.

The two companies will form a joint venture to develop new endoscopes and other medical imaging devices, with Sony owning 51% of the joint entity, and Olympus owning 49%.

For those interested in corporate finance, all the picky details can be found in the Olympus Press Release (pdf file).

What does this mean for photographers?

The most obvious benefit for Olympus cameras will be Sony sensors. The highly acclaimed Olympus OM-D EM-5 used a Sony sensor for the first time in an Olympus camera (at least, that we're aware of), resulting in superlative image quality. Sony is arguably the world's leading imaging sensor maker, so the closer ties with Olympus will doubtless mean Sony sensors in many or all of Olympus' cameras going forward.

When it comes to lenses for interchangeable lens cameras, Sony and Olympus both have very strong capabilities, Sony's inherited when they bought out Konica Minolta's camera business a number of years back, and Olympus' developed over decades of experience, beginning deep in the film era. It seems to us that technology and designs could go in both directions in this area, but in the announcement, Olympus President Hiroyuki Sasa said that Olympus would be providing lenses and lens barrels to Sony's camera business.

We wonder if there might be economies to be found by tight cooperation between Olympus' and Sony's lens design and manufacturing, but given that Olympus' lens efforts are focused (no pun intended) on Micro Four Thirds and Four Thirds development, there may be less synergy than you might expect.

On the other hand it should be pretty straightforward to design a lens in such a way that with only minor changes, different versions could be made to fit both Micro Four Thirds and Sony's E-mount flanges. Basically, you'd design a lens with an image circle large enough to cover the Sony NEX line's APS-C sensor, but a "native" flange or back-focus distance matching Micro Four Thirds. The difference in flange focal distance between the two platforms is only 1.25mm (18mm for the Sony E-mount and 19.25mm for Micro Four Thirds), so making a Micro Four Thirds version of a common design would just mean changing the flange and adding 1.25mm to the back of the lens barrel. The resulting lens wouldn't be as small as one designed solely for the Micro Four Thirds format due to the larger image circle, but this might be a way to really ramp up lens offerings for both product lines.

Given camera development cycles that are typically 18-24 months from concept to product, it might take a while for all of this to play out at the retail counter. But creating Micro Four Thirds versions of some of Sony's E-mount lenses could happen quite quickly.

All in all, interesting times in the camera business, and good news for Olympus owners, in the form of increased assurance that their platform will remain viable into the future.