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What's Yours Is Ours

It only took about ten years, but I finally got a story on Slashdot, about Nikon’s encryption of the white balance information in the NEF raw data from their DSLRs. Much inflamed commentary ensued in typical Slashdot “RTFA” style, which also spilled over on to the normally placid waters of PhotographyBlog (sorry, Mark). For what it’s worth now, assuming this is still of interest, here’s my take on it, including the reason for the “butt out” comment.

As a distinctly amateur photographer, I own three Nikon film SLRs, both modern and classic, and several lenses, most of which are secondhand because, being Nikons, I know they’ll probably outlast me. I’d buy a D2X tomorrow if I had that much money, purely because it’s one of the few Nikon DSLRs that can meter with the manual focus lenses that I’m not about to give up. The NEF encryption issue wouldn’t stop me, not because I don’t care or it wouldn’t affect me (I use Linux for all my post-processing), but because I know from past experience that almost all proprietary encrypted formats will either be reverse-engineered and broken or publically leaked within days if the urge is there - as indeed has happened again in this case. (Those people who claim they are now going to sell their $50,000 Nikon collections in favour of Canon are either admirably principled or flouncing drama queens. It’s not like Canon are the poster child for openness and consumer freedom - try getting one of their peripherals to work under Linux.)

But Nikon are compounding this foolishness with the arrogant, condescending tone of their press statement. It’s very rare for the company to comment publically like this on a perceived flaw with their products. While they must perform some excellent market research, judging by their product designs (mostly), they do not generally make themselves amenable to feedback and discussion; you won’t find an official Nikon blog anywhere, for example. Even a recognised pro like Thom Hogan grumbles frequently about how his (very well-informed) opinions are never solicited.

But reading their statement, the prevailing ethos at Nikon and the reason for their reluctance ever to come down from their tower is clear. In fact, it’s probably for the best that they don’t explain themselves more often, because it would only put more backs up and help to drive away their remaining customers. Superficially, the statement says: “This is not a problem, the data is accessible to the people who need it, move along, there’s nothing to see.” But reading between the lines, what I find is an ill-concealed contempt for the concept of openness and the people who promote such a stance, namely the open source community. Snide references to “bona fide” software companies that are “approved” by Nikon and repeated emphasis on the “proprietary” and “confidential” nature of their raw data format add up to a concerted raised digit against everyone who complained about not having full access to “their” image data.

Yes, it’s their invention and they may have the right to keep it a commercial secret (although given that it’s customer data, then again maybe not), but that doesn’t necessarily equal “smart move”. Their stated position is almost entirely bogus:

  • The SDK is not widely available. It’s not even easily available, given the old-fashioned written application process. Neither are the terms available in advance.
  • The SDK is still a proprietary, closed piece of software, even if you have the right to bundle the required libraries with your own application. NEF in part remains encrypted and undocumented, and access to it is strictly via the limited set of mechanisms implemented by the SDK. This closes down the possibility of innovation from outside (it’s not like Nikon’s own offerings are universally applauded as the best applications in their class).
  • According to reports, the SDK is only supplied as a C++ API for Windows and Mac; other platforms are apparently irrelevant.
  • Nikon ultimately decides who is qualified to receive the SDK, and the prerequisites for this honour are not made public. “Bona fide” is quite a loaded term. Even if the bar is actually quite low, the attitude on display here would suggest otherwise.
  • The mentions of the “choices”, “benefit” and “security” provided for photographers by this situation is at best disingenuous and at worst knowingly deceptive. Behind this smokescreen, Nikon remains the gatekeeper on data that forms the images taken by their customers.
  • If their concern was truly to protect their customers from poor quality image processing by third party applications, this would not be best served by attempting to hide implementation details. That only encourages developers, particularly those who cannot use the provided mechanisms, to experiment and create their own solutions, which may or may not be optimal (not that anyone can challenge Nikon’s own implementation on this score). In comparison, an open, well-documented format limits the potential for broken or incorrect implementations. It also helps to promulgate that format.

Many major software companies have evolved beyond this narrow-minded, arms-length style of business to embrace the growth of Linux and open source with good reason (even the other big player in this story, Adobe, has released several well-known open, documented content formats), so it’s tragic to see Nikon starting again from scratch and making the same mistakes without learning from history. Do they really believe there is some long term advantage to be gained, that there is a commercially successful software strategy, in attempting to lock-in their customers in this fashion?

No, they’ve strayed into unfamiliar territory now and fully deserve the resulting shitstorm. Whether it will help them gain a Clue, I’m not sure, because their approach so far is typical of many Japanese technology companies (e.g. Sony). We may be witnessing a clash between a Western consumer perspective that is gradually demanding more control over its purchases and the traditional but previously very successful Japanese determination to compete without either conceding to outsiders or cooperating with them.

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