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Kings of the sky

1/31/2018

DJI is the unquestioned leader of drone manufacturers

In the 1990s, Microsoft was the indomitable force hovering over the tech industry. The Internet had started to emerge but wouldn’t start changing the world until a couple years into the new millennium. Microsoft had full run of the court, and no matter who tried to defend, Bill Gates’ company was going to win. This was so much the case that the U.S. government and courts in the EU held antitrust hearings, with the initial 1999 U.S. judgement being Microsoft was a monopoly. Now under appeal, a federal court overturned that ruling, staving off court-mandated separation. In the moment, that must have seemed crazy to the tech world, as articles were being written about Microsoft being king of the hill for as long as it was interested. But once the 1990s ended, the Internet exploded, start-up tech firms reshaped the software market, and, over the course of a decade, Apple released the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Microsoft’s reign of terror dissolved seemingly overnight.

There is no company in computers or smart devices that is as dominate as Microsoft was in the 1990s. You could maybe make a case for Apple, but for every iPhone on the market there are four Android devices. Yes, Apple makes a lot of money, but Samsung, LG, Motorola, Huawei, and, of course, Google are major players. For a true look at Microsoft-style preeminence, turn your eyes to consumer electronics, specifically drones and camera stabilization technology, and a sleeping dragon of a company in China called DJI.

Thanks to the military, the term “drone” has been a part of our world for decades. Also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or Unmanned Aerial System, UAS’s only became part of the consumer world around the 2010s with DJI making its first foray in the market in 2013. DJI’s Phantom 1 was basically a cute toy, a mini helicopter that you could strap a GoPro to and fly around capturing shaky, unusable footage. But as technology goes, the germ of possibilities had been planted in the market and DJI was there basically before anyone else. By the time DJI had released the Phantom 2 and the Phantom 3, it had worked out much of the flight and stabilization concerns, developed its own line of cameras, and made a name for itself while its competition was scrambling to catch up.

For the best illustration of how unprepared the market was for DJI and drones, GoPro was the rising star of photography and video with its Hero line of action camera. In 2013 when DJI introduced a way to put a Hero in the sky, GoPro simply said “that’s neat,” while DJI secretly set out to steal the Hero’s lunch. Five years later, DJI wouldn’t dare connect a GoPro camera to its drones. For one thing, the DJI line of drone and stabilized action cameras has surpassed the Hero line in virtually every way, but DJI set out to do exactly what Microsoft did. Both companies entered a market, introduced a single product (for Microsoft it was Windows), learned how its customers interacted with it, and then created its own line of supplementary accessories that consumers were craving.

This shrewd move has made DJI the unquestioned king of drone manufacturers. GoPro tried to catch up, and not only failed miserably but nearly went bankrupt in the process. From $100 entry devices to more than $10,000 cinema drones, DJI seems to be nearly impenetrable. Still, if Microsoft has taught us anything, in the coming years there might be a wave of products that will turn DJI from a king to a jester. ♦

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Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.

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