Now that Nikon has announced its next flagship pro SLR, the Nikon D4, with much flowery prose but few hard details, discussion and debate and speculation and flames and praise have filled camera circles.
This post is long, but here's the two-sentence summary for the “tl;dr” crowd:
I wish they did, but perhaps this will help you understand why they didn't...
As with most any technology release (hardware or software), folks tend to frame their personal whims and desires as “absolutely required!”, while features that they don't personally care about become unneeded fluff. Photographers who don't care about video, for example, lament the assumed cost of all the new video features.
This is human nature, and in this respect I am human (why on earth doesn't Lightroom have geoencoding built in!?), but my moral outrage at the omission of personally-desired features is tempered by many years of experience with product design, and a long-learned understanding that in practice things are much more complex than they might seem from the outside.
A feature not included in the D4 is built-in geoencoding, an omission that some people find unfathomable, as evidenced by a thread at DPReview started with this message:
I mean... No words...
Those who don't care for it can just turn it off.
Those who do... Gosh. I really hate saying this, but what is nikon thinking?
This rant is clearly emotional, by someone who doesn't realize that it's emotional, nor that others may not share their particular emotions on this issue, so it's easy to dismiss. However, it started a long thread — one of many, I'm sure — where people debated the usefulness of having a GPS receiver in camera, and the business decision of having omitted it.
Of course, the responses included equally emotional rants on the other side of the aisle, such as this gem from Curtis Smith:
Are you that stupid you need the camera to tell you where you are? Its a freaking camera! Not a swiss army knife!!! Who gives a rats a$$ about GPS? I so sick of you old farts complaining about this ,that and you don't even have the camera. Yes a was complaint a while back for nikon to hurry up and give us the D4 and they have so guys give it a rest its not going to have all the tricks you wanted as its just a camera and by the looks of it a Dam good camera!
Personally, I've been geoencoding my photos for the better part of a decade (the ones I've posted, mostly in Kyoto, are mapped here) and would love to have it built into the camera.... but only if done well. I understand enough to know that it's not necessarily easy to do well, so I followed up the initial message with one of my own about some of the likely costs that came to mind — costs such as the physical space the GPS unit would add to an already bulky camera body, and how it would lower the value/cost benefit ratio (that is, the marktability) for those not interested in geoencoding their photos.
Each specific “cost” has its own level of impact, but the manufacture must weigh them as a whole against their benefits, and at this point in Nikon's product roadmap (at this point in the economy, at this point in their market research, perhaps in light of Mother Nature's harshness in 2011), built-in geoencoding didn't make the cut. Maybe it will when they reevaluated everything for the next camera. Or maybe not.
Anyway, as is common on faceless online discussions, some folks mix in a healthy dose of ignorance and antagonism with their emotion, such as this bit of arm-chair logic from Robin Casady replying to a “there are costs” post similar to my own:
The software aspect must already be done because you can plug-in a Nikon GP-1 and geotag each image.
So, fact #1 = bogus.
Here, Robin is referring to a small add-on product that Nikon sells that includes a GPS antenna; when you plugin it in to the camera and it has any kind of satellite fix, photos are geoencoded automatically. This has been available for years, and if I were to use it with my current camera, it would replace what I actually do (which is carry a separate GPS receiver while out with the camera, then sync its tracklog to the photos in Lightroom, with my geoencoding-support plugin).
I don't choose to use Nikon's add-on because I feel it's an ugly wart on the camera, I worry about its speed and accuracy, and it lacks the ability to display its status beyond more detail than a blinking light. And even if I did use it, I'd still need a way to geoencode after the fact, for locations where I didn't have it with me, to geoencode the photos I get from others on the same outing with me, for locations it couldn't get a good signal, and for times where a depleting battery prompted me to turn it off.
Anyway, at first blush Robin's logic may seem reasonable... Nikon already has the hardware as a separate product, and the cameras have had for years the firmware needed to geoencode the photos, so the simple step to include the hardware inside the camera takes almost no work, so citing “engineering costs” seems unreasonable, Robin concludes.
But that's an exceptionally naïve, ignorant point of view, even when limiting the scope of “engineering costs” to the “software aspect” that Robin brings up. (Update: In light up the updates noted below, “exceptionally naïve, ignorant point of view” is a perhaps harsher characterization than Robin's statement merits. See more below...)
If you move it from an external dongle to an internal component, you've lost all UI (“user interface”), so now you've got to come up with a way to interact with the user. You have to come up with a way for the user to turn the GPS feature on and off, and you have to come up with a way to indicate to the user whether the unit is on or off.
Let's look at just that latter point for a moment, the oh-so-simple “indicate to the user whether the unit is on or off”. That might naturally go into the viewfinder display, but since that very-limited real estate has been staked out by other UI needs for years, you're forced to change or remove things that until now were considered critical. Maybe just make everything else slightly smaller to squeeze in one more indicator, but geez, that was done the last several iterations and now things are starting to get way too small....
So that's not straightforward, and the same angst applies to the LCD displays.
Update: In a touche!-worthy reply, Robin points out that there's already a GPS-related indicator in both the viewfinder and LCD-body displays, which flashes to indicate that it's on but has no position fix, and is solid if it has any kind of fix. This clearly makes this bullet point of mine completely moot and I have learned something, but I don't think removing one or two points removes the idea that there's a cost/benefit balance that most of us don't fully understand.
Then you're faced with the fact that “on” and “off” are not really sufficient... you need to be able to communicate to the user whether the unit is actually getting a signal, and if so, how accurate. If I recall correctly, the hardware dongle uses a bi-color LED to indicate the difference between “on with good signal” or “on but no good signal”, and this is really very minimal because “good signal” means different things to different people (100m accuracy vs. 3m accuracy, for example). Also, “Not good signal” may really mean “warming up” or “can't see satellites”. So if you're going to bring it in house, you'll naturally want to tackle that issue to provide the user with a more-usable level of information, but maybe all of that doesn't need to go into the viewfinder, so now you've bifurcated the information (some in the viewfinder, and some somewhere else... likely in the menu system), so finding the balance there is another issue.
Then you've got to consider the situation of when the battery is getting low... it makes no sense to run the battery into the ground just so the GPS receiver can keep its fix while the camera is idle.... what good is it to have had a good fix for the last hour if you now don't have enough battery to take a shot? So you've got to come up with some measures to handle this situation (perhaps GPS auto shutoff when battery is below X% full), and this means that you have to have a whole new UI to communicate to the user when this has happened, what the current status is, and perhaps to allow the user to make adjustments to the heuristics for their specific needs.
Update: In the same reply noted above, Robin cites that there is already an option just as I postulated, that turns off the GPS receiver when the exposure meter turns off, some user-selected time (default: six seconds) after the shutter button is released. I offered the idea merely as an example of something that might be done, but I'm quite dismayed to find it's actually there in that form because one would generally want the GPS receiver to be active a lot longer than the exposure meter; the exposure meter comes back on instantly when you press the shutter button half way, but Nikon's GPS receiver takes a minimum of five seconds to get a fix when already hot, but is rated at 45 seconds when warm (unused for more than 15 minutes, I think). I'd like to the GPS unit remain on much longer than the exposure meter, and would like the ability to have it wake up every 14 minutes or so to keep itself “hot”...
But we've forgotten the more common situation of power management... should the unit be on all the time, or should it auto-shutoff in the same way the image review shuts off, coming back up when the shutter button is half depressed? (I'm half depressed just thinking about this.) Both make a lot of sense, each applied to its own situation, but no one solution makes sense for everyone, so again you need to add UI to allow the user to indicate their wishes, and more UI to communicate to the user this additional status of the settings chosen and the current state within the context of those settings.
Notice how the “simple software aspect” immediately
turned into a hardware aspect: both the viewfinder display and the LCD
display require physical hardware manufacturing changes to update. There
are other hardware aspects one could turn to (such as the LED seen in the
external GPS unit), or one could keep it all software by burying everything
into the menu system, but these are substantially less
Update: So, with my first viewfinder/LCD point having been completely wrong, the previous paragraph is pretty clearly unreasonable. You do still need to handle on/off for the GPS unit, but in my experience as a geoencoder I think it'd be sufficient to have it in the menu system.
All features have costs. The ones above are just what came to my imagination at first blush, but because I have no experience with embedding GPS receivers inside cameras, I'm sure there's a whole litany of additional problems I've neglected to consider.
Update: And it's because of this ignorance that we all have (at least those of us who are not camera-design engineers) that I characterized Robin's curt conclusion of “Bogus!” as I did. In light of my own ignorance on the viewfinder/LCD issue when I wrote it, my use of “exceptionally” seems overdramatic. Sorry about that, Robin.
Then there are the followup costs, such as the need to document all this in the user's manual, and translate that to all the languages that Nikon supports. (Of course, they'll have had to translate all the related UI in the camera menus.) Then there's the recurring need to provide support: more features mean more support calls, etc.
None of this is unsurmountable, and it's all certainly trivial compared to all the video features that did get added, so it wouldn't have surprised me in the least to have seen Nikon include this in the D4. But to do that they would have had to shift resources from something else, and if they had done that, we'd see these same online flamefests about whatever that “something else” was that got the short stick.
We'd also see additional flamefests about whatever GPS support did get built in and how lame it is...
This applies to pretty much every new hardware and software product you'll come across (I see it every time Adobe releases a new version of Lightroom, or Apple releases a new phone), so the next time something near and dear to your heart is released, realize that like everyone else you're talking to, you don't know it all, and take care to frame your wishes and opinions as just that, wishes and opinions.
(And as a matter of courtesy, don't point out my own advice to me when I don't follow it. )
By the way, several years ago I read an excellent writeup from a software developer about the extensive ripple of high-impact ramifications that he came across while trying to implement a “trivial” feature request from his users. I think it was about some kind of email-notification aspect of an online forum of some sort. My web-search kung-fu is weak on this one.... does anyone have a link for this article?