Whenever a big tech company struggles on Wall Street, my finely tuned schadenfreude chip clicks into double-overdrive. “Ha!” I think, as I gleefully pore over dour projections and snarky reports of hubris, mismanagement, and incompetence. “Not so easy to actually make money, is it?”
GoPro is different, though. It actually hurts to watch the persistent, no-end-in-sight struggles of this Silicon Valley-based maker of ubiquitous action cameras. By now, its Wall Street slide is one for the history books. It debuted at a modest $24, exploded to $93 per share, then shed nearly all of its value throughout 2015 and 2016 to bottom out at barely $8. It fell “victim” to burgeoning competition, product missteps (namely the initially way-overpriced, not-as-small-as-they-seemed-to-think Session camera) and a niggling usability problem among its customers — specifically, the fact that offloading the footage from the cameras and converting it into shareable, Red Bull-grade awesomeness always seems to require access to teams of highly skilled producers.
It actually hurts to watch the persistent, no-end-in-sight struggles of this Silicon Valley-based maker of ubiquitous action cameras.
I’m not here to kick GoPro while it’s down — there are plenty of others doing that — but I want to vent because it doesn’t have to be like this. Videos created with GoPros have captured imaginations around the globe, warmed hearts, made us laugh, and inspired many to go out and have a bit more fun with their lives, regardless of whether they’re recording the action. It’s hard to watch the videos and not be swept away by the contagious enthusiasm of those who created them. And the best part is that you don’t have to be a brand-sponsored adrenaline junkie to join in on the fun — people have gone viral strapping GoPro’s to hula-hoops, kites, dogs, and, of course, drones, model airplanes, and rockets. They’ve been stuck in dishwashers, strapped to car wheels, and sent to the edge of space in balloons. GoPro’s supremely high-quality cameras have helped create magic all around the world. To watch it flounder is frustrating, given that the company absolutely should still be riding the wave of high-energy adventurism and creative, playful camera use that it helped create, and which enthusiastic social-media sharing distributed to the universe on a silver platter. There’s absolutely no excuse for GoPro’s lack of Apple-caliber world domination.
So what the hell happened? Unfortunately, a long string of oversights, Johnny-come-lately sluggishness, and seriously dubious decision-making, all led by CEO and founder Nick Woodman. Start with the cameras: The technological progress of its core product, the Hero, while consistently and justifiably lauded for sensational image quality and versatility, has been offset by continued high costs and those usability gremlins. I want top-shelf image quality without having to pay $400 or $500 for it every time — especially if I want multiple cameras to mount all over cars, bikes, skateboards, etc. (The now-$200 Session doesn’t count — its image quality simply isn’t the same as the higher-end GoPros, the Hero4 Silver and Hero4 Black.) How about a $100 entry point and a $300 top end? Granted, we don’t know all the details of the manufacturing costs for the company, but the bottom line is that the cameras are simply too expensive, given that you can get stupendous quality out of a multi-functional smartphone these days (which lets you to capture, edit and immediately distribute content on one device).
Also, they remain complex gadgets, particularly on the post-shooting side. The cameras offer a slew of new features, including Protune (an image-quality enhancement feature), QuickCapture, HiLight Tag, SuperView, no fewer than 12 resolution options, and many other tricks that you’re not only never quite sure when and why to use them, but when and why not to use them. Why wouldn’t I want Protune enabled all the time? Why would I want to use 24fps over 30fps over 60fps? Is there a penalty somewhere? I pity the noobs. Offering the app to control and view the camera’s feed has helped, but it also complicates use when you have to connect it and then spend precious minutes confirming everything is working, and then trying to figure out the problem if it isn’t. The Hero4 Silver has a built-in LCD screen, which helps, but you have to pay $80 to add that capability onto the $500 Hero4 Black. Choosing and using these cameras remains a bewildering, exhausting experience. While you can generally turn it on and start recording immediately, determining what mode it’s in and actually instituting changes to the setup requires a degree of attentiveness you’d think would be anathema to an “action” camera. This becomes slightly less of a problem when you become conversant with the tech, but these are supposed to be for everyone, right? And really, even pro shooters want easier, more intuitive cameras.
So what the hell happened? Unfortunately, a long string of oversights, Johnny-come-lately sluggishness, and seriously dubious decision-making.
Of course, this hasn’t even hit on the knotty problem of what you do with the footage you create. The software GoPro has provided has always been good, but not great, and the process of moving footage around remains complex and confusing. Why can’t I just open the video file on my iPhone? It needs to be converted? From what? To whom? A recent article in The Verge touted the company’s newfound enthusiasm for software in its attempt to steer itself onto more solid footing. It speaks of new strategies and acquisitions, and Woodman’s dedication to making editing footage easy. This is the most essential (and most boring part of the GoPro experience), and the thing the company should have been on top of years ago.
Even more baffling than the continued struggles with usability is the company’s broader hardware strategy. Here’s what we can expect in the next year: The GoPro Hero5, which I’m sure will be great, and pricey. And the Omni 360-degree camera rig equipped with six GoPros that will cost — no joke — $5,000. But who can blame them: 360-degree video and virtual-reality viewing is the rage right now. I’m sure using GoPro’s to capture it will be terrific, especially in the 8K resolution they’re promising. (Though the demo vids are exceptionally mundane ski/surf/etc. fare, with obviously faked walkie-talkie chatter piped in to bump up the excitement.) But at $5,000, nobody but the most dedicated professional shooters will buy this rig. It’s unclear if GoPro will release a more accessible 360-degree camera (a single or two-lens setup) but even if they do, they’ll be the one of the last major camera companies to do so. Everyone is there already — 360Fly, Ricoh Theta S, Kodak, Nikon, etc. — and they’re making great products, stuff that matches the streaming/viewing capabilities of the moment.
Oh, there’s also the Karma drone. Where to start. How about the fact that the drone market has plenty of cutting-edge companies — DJI, 3DR, Yuneec — that have mind-bendingly great products and multi-year head starts. Or how about the fact that there’s not a ton of evidence that the drone market is truly sustainable, long-term. They’ve flown off the shelves for the last two holiday seasons, but I (a drone advocate and enthusiast) guarantee you that 90 percent of them are already more or less permanently shelved. When was the last time you saw a recreational drone user flying around? After you film your neighborhood, a sunrise at the beach, and one ski run, most consumers run out of ideas of stuff to shoot.
We know little about GoPro’s plans for this product, though there are hints that it will incorporate 360-degree footage. (Which, by the way, can be easily achieved with any drone and any 360-degree camera.) As for other features, we have nothing except a teaser video, narrated by Woodman, that came out months ago and implied 360-degree capability, but to the average viewer looked more like the company finally discovered drone tech and can’t wait for you to try it. I’d rather GoPro worked — as it does with 3D Robotics — to optimize their cameras for drone use, via smooth interfaces and on-the-fly settings adjustments. Let the drone-makers make the drones; you focus on being their go-to camera supplier.
Will a 360-degree camera and the Karma drone move the needle for GoPro? Not likely. What could have moved the needle for GoPro? Lots of things. They could have offered more lens options, instead of the now overly-familiar ultra-wide-angle single standard lens. After all, when you can spot GoPro footage from a mile away, that’s not necessarily a great thing.
I’d buy that and put it on a model rocket, or my cat, or swallow it and puke it back up just to watch the video.
GoPro also could have expanded into new markets. Perhaps a GoPro dashcam, or security camera, or a point-and-shoot. I’d buy any of those. Or how about a full FPV (first person view) rig for drone racing, R/C car driving, model rocketry, or other niche hobbies? How about, say, a micro-cam? If Apple can put a great 4K camera in a phone, GoPro damn well can put one in something the size of a sugar cube. I’d buy that and put it on a model rocket, or my cat, or swallow it and puke it back up just to watch the video. In short, GoPro should be using its core competency — great image quality in durable products — in surprising, cool, sometimes slightly-less-sexy applications. They should be making us squeal with delight every year, the way Apple used to, rather than making us merely nod semi-appreciatively at bewildering new features, and then dread shelling out another $500 for a camera when ours falls into the ocean.
These aren’t things that can be easily dismissed as merely benefiting from hindsight, because they’re the things I’ve wanted all along — and absolutely none of them are happening now. I hope the drone is awesome, I hope there’s an affordable 360 camera in the pipeline, and I hope its action cameras have universally great footage at lower prices. I’ll wait. On the other hand, all that stuff from Sony, Samsung, TomTom, JVC, Nikon, Ricoh, 360Fly is starting to look pretty good right now.