Sorting Out : GoPro

Coast to Coast - another curve into Mordor

Rather than just review a product, I thought I’d review a whole company and make sweeping and simple recommendations on how to improve their business with the benefit of having no experience in their market. So, sorting out GoPro.

That said, I often think reviewers and opinion pieces on the internets should spend a bit more time talking about what they wanted or expected from things in the first place, and what their experiences have been, so we as readers get a little context. So first then, let me explain my history of usage with GoPro action cameras.

My GoPro History & Usage

My first GoPro was a Hero 2 HD in early 2012. I loved that thing, in its plastic case with spring mounted buttons, 720p video and distinctive look. I had the screen ‘bacpac’, and replaced that with the wifi bacpac, which in hindsight was a mistake. I actually had 2 of them – I lost one in Guam whilst swimming with my family. I had to quickly help someone, and the floaty the GoPro was on just floated away somewhere! On the positive side, I had backed up all the footage the night before, so I didn’t real lose any memories.

Helmet and Action Appendage

I soon bought another Hero 2, whilst on sale before the Hero 3 came out, as I found it was really filling a niche for me, and it helped a lot with getting footage for family movies, snowboard and motorcycle days, and be a camera the kids could use at the beach and all the other outdoors stuff we do without worrying about it getting wet and such. I also really liked the timelapse on it, which continues to be a key use for me even now.

A few years later I sold the Hero 2 on Craigslist, and with a bit of saving, I bought a GoPro 5 Black in late 2016. I liked the higher frame rates, lack of need for case, and the touch screen. I was then gifted a new 7black for Xmas 2018 from the family, and sold off the 5 (I really don’t need 2 action cameras at a time). Broadly I’ve liked the stabilization, the new timelapse modes, the photo improvements. The crashing [potentially] due to orientation? Not so much.

So that’s me and GoPros. So what’s my opinion, and thoughts on the company, products and directions?

The Hardware

I find GoPros to be generally well made. Everything seems to fit well, and of course their mounting system has been the standard for the market for quite a while, which helps since their own brand accessories and batteries are usually at least double the cost of anyone else’s and explains why most of my accessories are third party.

The one aspect of the hardware I think is ridiculous is the DRM’d mic port. It’s just a silly way to spin up some revenue. I don’t know why GoPro don’t just let people use any adapter or even BlueTooth for mics. I’d be keen to see the economics on that.

In newer models you can now do portrait video. I’m no young InstaInfluencer, so maybe there’s a market for this, but all the people I see with action cams, and all the footage I see online from actions cams? None of it is portrait. Vertical video is from the smartphone market. I could be tainted here since watching the ‘Community’ forums, it seems that the auto orientation feature they have now seems to be causing more crashing for very little benefit for people who actually use it in social media.

The Applications and Services

Software is not GoPros strong point. At all. I suspect they know this since much of their application range has been bought in.

The first desktop app of theirs I used was Studio, which was a very, very basic, not to say clunky editor, but did let you stitch together time lapses and I used it for that a few times.

It helped organize footage, but I already have workflows for that, so I didn’t use that side so much. It also helped update the cameras and indeed it seemed to work fine for that. Ironic now that GoPro’s own support steps start with ‘manually update your GoPro’ and not use Studio’s successor for that.

They replaced Studio with Quik on mobile and desktop, but now you had to log in to GoPro to use it (since sort of dropped). It has some nice functions, but is a more limited editor than Studio in some ways (e.g. no timelapse now) if that was your need. It doesn’t help that it doesn’t recognise HEVC capable hardware correctly in many cases including mine, meaning it refuses to play those files which are often high resolution, high frame rate clips, so often I don’t use it for playback, which is ironic given GoPro market so much of their product appeal as high frame rate / high resolution… which requires HEVC. Of course you can still play it back in VLC or Quicktime if the underlying hardware supports it (mine does).

I don’t use it at all then on the desktop, and have only a couple of times on mobile where the story maker function is quite good, and it will edit non GoPro footage also. On the desktop it does let you select the overlays for the data-logging the camera does, showing GPS location, speed, orientation etc., but that’s a novelty at best, and the doesn’t seem to work with other editors anyway.

I’ve submitted a few feature requests to GoPro to enhance Quik, to make it more useful, such as for lossless cutting, SD card testing, and file fixing – things the GoPro users specifically need, so we’ll see if any of that happens. Having a basic editor is OK, but beyond that I think they’re better pitching it as a utility on the desktop, and doing a deal with an existing ‘free’ editor company like BlackMagicDesign (who also make cameras…hmmm).

The Plus offering of cloud storage and damage cover was initially too little, too expensive, and initially restrictive on quality of footage and didn’t really fit into many people’s workflows. Here in Japan the Plus pricing is 7,200JPY a year (for ‘unlimited’ storage). A 200GB Google Drive is 4,560JPY a year, but doesn’t get you the insurance aspect.

As ever, the idea of on the road cloud backup is nice, but implementation is clunky. It also shows that subtle weakness – it needs a smartphone or other connected device to get the most from it, and for most people, they’re just going to use their phone. I do think this is a good idea for the product though, because again it plays to the core – usage of cameras outdoors, in difficult conditions with the risk of damage.

Live streaming was another new feature rolled out, and unfortunately another I don’t really have a usage scenario for personally. Again, this isn’t a GoPro issue, this is my issue. I’m interested to see how this catches on compared to people just using their phones and apps like Periscope for this functionality.

Bottom Line: I don’t think the Insta crowd use GoPros more than active outdoor people use GoPros. The insurance concept is nice and to make it better for the GoPro usage scenario, so perhaps less time on chasing those ephemeral social media users who broadly aren’t the core market, and more resources on action cam users who are?

By The Numbers and the Business

I don’t believe that share price etc., should or does have an impact on product mix all the time, nor do I think equity share price reflects a company’s success or value all the time, but let’s just look at 5 years of share price for GPRO. It peaked on October 3rd 2014 at 86.97 USD just after the IPO in early 2014. It’s spent much of the last 3 years between 5 and 10 USD. That’s not healthy in the broadly capitalistic system.

Again though, latest figures show the company is showing improvement with an increase of 11% in cameras shipped, and the Plus product is seeing some improvement with an increase of 50% sales, year on year, which I suspect may coincide with allowing any footage to be uploaded. It seems clearing up the Karma drone situation seems to have helped too, and they’re done writing it off. A nice idea the Karma, just not done well, and the plug pulled.

The Tunnel
The Tunnel

The Bottom Bottom Line

Years on from their founding in 2002 then, they’re still a camera company. They still sell a lot of cameras, but the smartphone trend of an annual refresh cycle seems to leave GoPro with serious quality issues on release and increasingly annoyed users on the community forums. Perhaps they need to lower their cadence to every other year, and use the off year to build support and fix firmware, or the company operations need rethinking.

GoPro should acknowledge that the ‘mainstream’ days are going away. They need to re-embrace their original and new niche customers who need cameras that work in odd places, stuck on odd things, and see the target more as YouTube/Vimeo than FaceBook/Instagram. Everyone else will use a waterproof smartphone, or use ‘real cameras’ for higher quality.

As for other markets, I think there’s room for action cameras for a while yet, and whilst GoPro missed the drone market both by a wide margin in terms of the time window and delivered a seemingly flawed product in the Karma, ‘rugged smartphones’ could still be a market for GoPro until they can identify something else.

Less marketing, more support for grass roots – for something designed to capture once in a lifetime or out there footage, a level of support on forums etc. is vital. The ‘Community‘ is OK, but there’s so little official comment on there or letting people know what’s considered a problem and what isn’t. Whilst Asia only accounts for ~15% of sales, getting a chat session for support outside (and sometimes inside) US hours is not easy, which is a shame, and in my experience, whilst the support is friendly, it’s very heavily scripted, and not always conclusive. (My experience was that we went through the generic troubleshooting, and when I could still replicate a freezing issue, was told to turn auto-orientation off, and there, fixed. Turning off a feature to stop a problem is not a fix. I received 2 case numbers, but didn’t get a transcript for either.)

Given DJI has just entered the high end action camera market with the Osmo Action which does 80% of what the 7 Black does, this isn’t like the days gone past of Yi jumping in and taking those ‘lower end’ GoPros sales, this is really attacking GoPro’s core.

Shonan 2013 - July
Shonan 2013 – July

The Very Bottom Line

So that’s it; a view of GoPro, my history and usage of GoPro, and some notes on where I think they are and aren’t. I generally don’t do brand loyalty, in the same way that companies don’t really do customer loyalty, but I’ve liked what successions of GoPro engineers and the business have done, and I’d like to see them succeed, but their continued seeming belief that they’re Apple and that they’re selling a lifestyle I don’t think will translate into success in the very long term.