GoPro recently announced it had returned to profit, which might come as a surprise to anyone who doesn't pay close attention to what's happening in the world of tech news. Those things are really popular, aren't they? Everyone at least knows someone who has one.
That may be true, but GoPro's fortunes are far from assured. 2017 saw the arrival of the Hero6, the Omni camera rig and GoPro's Fusion 360-degree action cam in a bid to make VR moviemaking easier. But over the past two years, the company has faced financial tribulations and declining shares, caused by a range of factors.
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One of the biggest factors was the Karma, an impressive attempt at a consumer drone, which was scuppered by two unexpected things ‚Äď a botched launch, and the unveiling of the DJI Mavic, a very similar product whose launch was slightly less botched.
Karma wasn't GoPro's only product to have stumbled out of the gate. Its entry-level Hero 4 Session action cam had to endure two price cuts before it picked up much interest, shaving 50% off its original launch price. This had the added effect of making the lower end of GoPro's range confusing and cluttered, its products effectively competing with one another. It was no surprise when the company announced a big old product clearout in 2016.
The cheaper competition
With GoPro's lower-end products being so disorganised, this had the effect of exacerbating another problem ‚Äď competition from cheaper knock-offs. The thrifty shopper who doesn't care about branding will find no shortage of inexpensive GoPro alternatives if they look, particularly from Chinese manufacturers.
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Pavle Djordjevic is the founder of Pevly, a blog dedicated to all things action camera, and he has noticed a definite shift away from GoPro.
"People are certainly becoming more and more aware of the alternatives," he says. "In the beginning there was only GoPro, but now we have incredible number of brands fighting for the market."
Pavle's attention was first drawn to alternative action cameras back in 2014, when he was shopping for an upcoming trip and was turned off by the price of the Hero 3 Black. He found the SJ4000 from SJCAM, one of the first cheaper GoPro alternatives.
"I was so excited that for $90 I could get nearly the same video quality and form factor [as a GoPro], with tons of accessories included," he says. "I've never regretted buying it."
Since then of course, the market has swelled ‚Äď asked to provide a recommendation, Pavle quickly reels off the Xiaomi YI, Gitup Git 2, YI 4K, Firefly 8S, Xiaomi Mijia Mini 4K, Thieye T5E. Never heard of them? Neither had I. But they're gaining ground, and every one is focused on the same customers as GoPro. Bigger names are muscling in on wearable cameras too ‚Äď you may have heard about the Google Clips.
There's competition at the other end too.
Entire feature-length movies have been shot on GoPro cameras (Hardcore Henry), and GoPro shots have made their way into major Hollywood productions ‚Äď notable examples include Ridley Scott's The Martian, where the GoPro shots blended seamlessly into the narrative, and Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, where they didn't.
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The fact that GoPro footage tends to stick out in high-quality productions means the door is open for a usurper to step into this sector of the market. Enter Sony.
The new Sony RX0 is basically the same prospect as a GoPro Hero 5 or 6, but with two key differences. The first is a much larger sensor, which means greater dynamic range, better low-light performance and higher resolution ‚Äď essentially lots of things that your kayaking dad doesn't care about, but cinematographers do. The second is the eye-watering $700 price tag, which would probably give your kayaking dad an aneurysm, but which a professional movie producer wouldn't blink at.
Kristian Hampton, filmmaker and technical editor for pro video at Wex Photo Video, recently tested out the Sony RX0. He sees the two cameras as prospects for different users, with Sony very much courting the higher end.
"The RX0 has a 1-inch sensor crammed into that small body, so it's naturally going to perform much better in low light in comparison to its rivals," he says. "Also, in front of that sensor we've got a 24mm (equivalent) lens, which is wide enough for most POV-style shots without producing distortion. It'll make life easier when it comes to cutting it together with footage from larger format cameras."
So might the RX0 find itself in filmmaker's kit bags more regularly than a GoPro Hero?
"It's going to be interesting to see how this pans out, but my thinking is that the RX0 is likely going to take a good chunk of GoPro's market share when it comes to TV and film production," Hampton says. "I'd put that down to its ability to output a clean 4K (UHD) signal [with an external recorder], coupled with the fact that it's also got Sony's flat S-Log2 profile." For those not familiar with all things camera, that S-Log2 profile Hampton talks about refers to the ability to capture footage with a wider colour gamut and dynamic range. Ultimately, upgrading your cinematography game in a big way.
Holding out for a Hero
It's certainly an interesting picture we see of GoPro as 2017 draws to a close. The company is posting its first profit in two years, but meanwhile it's steadily being outpriced at the low end and has competitors snapping at its heels at the high end.
Dan Gallagher covers technology for The Wall Street Journal's Heard on the Street column. For him, the key to GoPro maintaining its improved trajectory will be projecting an image of stability that restores investor confidence.
"The lack of a new flagship product in late 2015 helped spark a selloff from which the stock has never fully recovered," he recently wrote. From there, stumbles like the Session and the Karma made a bad situation worse.
The company's fortunes rest with the Hero6, and so far there is some reasonable cause for optimism. It's a solid product, bringing in welcome new features like image stabilisation, 4K 60fps and super slow motion, without any attempts to reinvent the wheel. The entry-level Session replacement due in 2018 is also likely to follow the same mould as before.
"We are not shooting for the moon," said CEO Nick Woodman in his most recent address to investors, and that's a good indication of where GoPro will be heading in 2018. Fewer of the stunts, fewer attempts at big paradigm shifts. Just a company back to doing what it does best.