Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Avianization vs Dinosaurization in Image Sensor Industry

Wiley Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal publishes a paper "When dinosaurs fly: The role of firm capabilities in the ‘avianization’ of incumbents during disruptive technological change" by Raja Roy, Curba Morris Lampert, and Irina Stoyneva.

"Research Summary: We investigate the image sensor industry in which the emergence of CMOS sensors challenged the manufacturers of CCD sensors. Although this disruptive technological change led to the demise of CCD technology, it also led to avianization — or strategic renewal — for some incumbents, similar to how some dinosaurs survived the mass Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction by evolving into birds. We find that CCD manufacturers that did avianize were preadapted to the disruptive CMOS technology in that they possessed relevant complementary technologies and access to in-house users that allowed them to strategically renew themselves.

Managerial Summary: We investigate the transition from CCD to CMOS image sensors in the digital image sensor industry. Although the emergence of CMOS sensors was disruptive to CCD sensors, we find that CCD sensor manufacturers such as Sony and Sharp successfully transitioned to manufacturing CMOS sensors. Contrary to popular press and prior academic research characterizing disruptive change as being a source of failure for large firms, our research reveals that firms that possess relevant complementary technologies and have access to in-house users are able to strategically renew themselves in the face of a disruptive threat."

While the main paper is behind a paywall, the supplementary material is openly available.

The complementary technologies (CT) are said to enable the CCD companies to win a place on CMOS sensor market:
  • Global or electronic shuttering
  • Microlenses
  • CDS
  • Lightpipe or light shield
  • Hole Accumulation Diode (HAD)

Another key condition for successful transition to CMOS technology is an access to in-house users. It is used to explain Kodak demise:

"The lack of access to in-house users at Kodak was consistent with its corporate strategy. According to George Fisher, ex-CEO, Eastman Kodak was a ‘horizontal firm because in a digital world, it is much more important to pick out horizontal layers where you have distinctive capabilities. In the computer world, one company specializes in microprocessors, one in monitors, and another in disk drives’ (Galaza and Fisher, 1999: 46). Chinon was eventually acquired by Kodak in 2004 (Eastman Kodak Company, 2004a) and continued to design and manufacture the point-and-shoot cameras."

Reticon/EG&G, Tektronix, and Ford Aeronutronic used to have access to in-house users but lacked relevant CTs. "We find that Reticon/EG&G, Tektronix, and Aeronutronic Ford failed to avianize themselves during the disruptive change to CMOS sensors from CCD sensors."


  1. Sigh. This could have been a much more interesting and informative article. I did download it and I also remember talking to the author about the technology a few years ago. Not being a technologist, much less image sensor technologist, he had some challenges in understanding some of the nuances between CCD and CMOS image sensors. Slightly irking to me is that he seems to be building on the "dinosaur" theme of one of my earliest APS papers without referencing that paper, and also might be unaware of the later paper I wrote on the transfer of the technology from the NASA JPL lab to industry. Saturn to your Cell Phone

    1. I fully agree. Many facts are incorrect there. For example, Sharp is given as an example of successful transition to CMOS sensor business, totally wrong.

      If I was explaining the successes and failures of CCD to CMOS to BSI to stacked sensor business transitions, I'd mostly concentrate on personalities. A right person making right decisions at the right time can make it a success, while absence of such person makes it a failure.

      The authors' theory of complementary technologies and in-house users as enablers for success does not look relevant to me.

    2. Hi Eric, this is really a very interesting paper with insights into the history of image sensors. Thanks for sharing the link

  2. I fully agree too. To my opinion, "The Innovator's Dilemma" of Clayten Christensen describes best what happened during the CCD/CMOS transition.
    Power dissipation and small form factor suddenly became the critical requirements for an imager, as they are important for the cell phone camera. CMOS imagers were better at that than CCDs. That was the disruption.

    You can also find the reasons in that book, why most CCD vendors didn't succeed in switching to CMOS and why Sony was the only CCD supplier succesful in the transition to CMOS imagers. To name a few: there is a lot of internal resistance against the newcomer technology, the factory of the established tech (CCD fab) must be kept loaded, focus on the wrong (but great) specifications of the established technology to defend it, and wrong market predictions for the newcomer as no-one really knows the market after a disruptive stap. You can also recognize that in Eric's article (see the link in his comment), when he describes the initial response to CMOS imagers.

    I remember that the president of Sony Imaging also referred to this book in an interview. If you recognize this on-time, you can make different decisions for the further development of the new technology. I guess they did that.

    1. Just to be clear (as the intendation is confusing) - I fully agree with Eric and Vladimir, not with the statements in that paper on avianization and dinosaurization.

  3. I know an ex-sony engineer who turned their current-output CIS at that time into voltage-output, introduced negative bias transfer gate in addition to pinned photodiode, examined new technologies for BSI-CIS against BSI-CCD to a patent, all of them around 2000. If he was in another company, today's sony was different.
    Analysts cannot know the dynamics inside and then only sticks to observables from outside of which theory is not useful next time..


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