GoPro yesterday saw its stock dive, after some bad press which predicted its action cams are destined to go the way of the dodo thanks to smartphone cameras. Untrue! Here's why.
The Barrons article by Alexander Eule, entitled GoPro's Thrill-Filled IPO Adventure May End Badly, compares GoPro with products like the Flip Cam, the compact video camera which soared in popularity before being completely snuffed out by video integration in smartphones. Fair enough, except that GoPro is nothing like Flip Cam. Another thing GoPro is nothing like? A smartphone.
Smartphones shoot video, sometimes of very high quality. But what GoPro, and action cams like it, affords its users is a compendium of small advantages that add up to a unique experience. Saying smartphones will replace them is like saying the army will someday replace tanks with hatchbacks.
Here's a brief rundown of the distinctions, which might seem obvious but apparently aren't.
- A GoPro's super wide-angle lens captures a field of view that you can only somewhat duplicate on a phone with the aid of clunky attachments that degrade quality. Phones will never adopt ultra-wide lenses natively, because they limit the other everyday uses of the camera, like snapshots or portraits.
- The durability and waterproof housing of an action cam allows worry-free operation in harsh environments, something some smartphones are starting to embrace but in a limited way.
- The versatility of being able to mount a GoPro virtually anywhere in any position with the endless array of mounts and accessories makes it a true go-anywhere device; just try strapping an iPhone to your surfboard.
- GoPro and its ilk provide easily expandable storage, with cheap microSD cards allowing for long stretches of shooting.
- And finally, the sheer image quality blows most smartphones out of the water, and will by all accounts continue to.
Image quality on smartphone cameras will undoubtedly improve, as will many other aspects of their image-taking capability. But GoPro's will as well. And how the two devices continue to evolve in other ways will tip to GoPro's advantage as well. The prevailing trend in phones is to go bigger; even Apple is reportedly getting on that train. Action cams, however, will only get smaller, firming up their already huge advantage for shooting in strange situations.
The only legitimate competitive detail Eule addresses in the Barrons article is this:
As accessory makers perfect wearable mounts for smartphones — and they inevitably will — it becomes hard to justify GoPro's competitive advantage, particularly at 83 times earnings.
True, there are loads of wearable mounts for phones. But have you ever seen anyone actually wearing them? Probably not, because while mounts may improve, the basic smartphone form factor makes them impractical and cumbersome to strap to your head, especially as they continue to increase in size. This line of thinking also also ignores the fact that people rely on their phone for countless other functions, most of which don't quite work when you try to simultaneously use it as an action cam.
All of the differences may seem insignificant on their own, but when you're talking about consumer electronics, the details count for a whole lot. It's the intangibles that often can mean the difference between a thriving business and a flash in the pan. Products like Flip couldn't survive because they offered zero competitive advantage over a smartphone. The same can't be said for GoPro.
Yes, dedicated action cams like GoPro must evolve and present people with a good reason to buy. Like any gadget maker, their soaring stock prices do not by any means assure a bright and prolonged future. GoPro could tank for a number of reasons. They might saturate a niche market. Maybe their technology will plateau. But to start sounding the death-rattle by comparing two vastly different products offering vastly different experiences is ridiculous.
Here's when GoPro will have to worry about smartphone competition: when you nest go skydiving or surfing, you decide to strap an iPhone to your face. And that's not a day that's coming any time soon.