Sony almost teamed up with Olympus and Panasonic in 2008

Back in 2008, Sony considered joining the Micro Four Thirds standard – where it would effectively have joined forces with the pioneers of mirrorless cameras, Panasonic and Olympus.

It seems hard to imagine now, but 20 years ago Sony's camera business was not doing well. Konica Minolta sold its camera division to Sony in 2006, but the new owner simply couldn't make a success of the clunky A-mount technology. 

• Sony didn't join, but the best Micro Four Thirds cameras (opens in new tab) are great imaging tools

It concluded that it would have to come up with compact new technology – something that Micro Four Thirds was already developing, with the first ever mirrorless camera (the Panasonic G1) about to be released in 2008. Sony could see where the market was going.

"If Sony does an interchangeable lens system, then it's going to be the compact and lightweight route that represents our true worth," recalled Shigeki Ishizuka, (opens in new tab) Sony Group Vice Chairman, in a fascinating ongoing series with Nikkei (thanks to Digital Camera Info (opens in new tab)for the tip).

"It was around this time [November 2006, when Ishizuke rejoined the Digital Camera Business Division] that the Micro Four Thirds team asked me if I wanted to join the family. 

"I thought it was a well-balanced format that could achieve a compact size while maintaining the image quality and lens bokeh that are unique to an interchangeable lens system. On the other hand, there are other options if you want to pursue image quality and performance.

The first ever mirrorless camera was the Micro Four Thirds-based Panasonic G1, in 2008. Two years earlier, Sony was invited to join the standard (Image credit: James Artaius)

So when did the decision come to go in a different direction? 

"It was the fall of 2008, and I will never forget it. We had a brainstorming session for the medium-term plan for the next three years. Of course, Sony's interchangeable-lens cameras would have to be made smaller, equal, and mirrorless. 

"[We asked the question] what kind of system should be used? As one of them [options], 'Let's accept Micro Four Thirds as it is'. As a second option, 'Let's shift to mirrorless while maintaining the assets and brand of Alpha, and do a miniaturized version.' I had a few other ideas, but these two were the most realistic.

"So, at the end of 2008, it had already been decided that it would be 'a mirrorless with APS-C that is compatible with A-mount lenses.' However, while it would be nice to be able to take over the assets, there is the problem of whether or not the camera will be small, light, and attractive enough to differentiate itself from other companies.

"If you do it with Micro Four Thirds, it will definitely be smaller." But if you do that, you'll be completely on the same playing field as your competitors. And as pointed out, if you inherited the Alpha assets from Konica Minolta and switched to a different one with Micro Four Thirds, everything would be wasted. In that case, it is still better to develop in-house."

Ultimately, that is of course what Sony did. It debuted the E-mount in 2010, with the first generation of Sony NEX cameras (opens in new tab), and that same mount continues to this day and powers the best Sony cameras (opens in new tab) in both APS-C and full frame formats. Though it's fascinating to think what may have happened, if Sony had joined the Micro Four Thirds standard instead – the entire camera industry would be radically different!

If this article was of interest, you might like to check out the best Olympus cameras (OM System) (opens in new tab) and best Panasonic cameras (opens in new tab) using the Micro Four Thirds standard.

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James Artaius
Editor

The editor of Digital Camera World, James has 21 years experience as a journalist and started working in the photographic industry in 2014 (as an assistant to Damian McGillicuddy, who succeeded David Bailey as Principal Photographer for Olympus). In this time he shot for clients like Aston Martin Racing, Elinchrom and L'Oréal, in addition to shooting campaigns and product testing for Olympus, and providing training for professionals. This has led him to being a go-to expert for camera and lens reviews, photo and lighting tutorials, as well as industry news, rumors and analysis for publications like Digital Camera Magazine (opens in new tab)PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine (opens in new tab)N-Photo: The Nikon Magazine (opens in new tab)Digital Photographer (opens in new tab) and Professional Imagemaker, as well as hosting workshops and talks at The Photography Show (opens in new tab). He also serves as a judge for the Red Bull Illume Photo Contest. An Olympus and Canon shooter, he has a wealth of knowledge on cameras of all makes – and a fondness for vintage lenses and instant cameras.