We're seeing a lot of discussion online about Nikon and Canon introducing new mirrorless camera lines shortly. As is typical, there's a lot of chatter of the form boy they have a hard row to hoe, they better come out with someone incredible if they're going to stem the Sony tide. This is silly and wrong.
This is akin to suggesting that when Chevrolet was planning to introduce automatic transmissions that their cars had better have wings and jet engines in order to stem the inevitable onslaught of Oldsmobile's Hydra-Matic. Of course Chevy didn't have to do anything of the sort. What Chevy needed to do was quite different. They needed to convince the buying public that a Chevy with an automatic was still a Chevy. Chevy merely needed to persuade people that whatever it was that made people buy Chevy cars (good value car for a relatively inexpensive price, sufficiently reliable, and so on) was still present in the version with the automatic transmission, and that the automatic transmission made the whole experience sufficiently better to justify the additional cost for at least some buyers.
Chevy was an established brand, with a great deal of what is termed "goodwill" in business parlance, when the automatic transmission was introduced. They had an established base of existing customers, and a large base of potential customers who, while they may never have bought a Chevy, had a clear idea of what "Chevy" means and could potentially be induced to buy at the right moment.
Mirrorless technology, with electronic viewfinders, has been coming for a long time. Right now Sony has been doing well with a line of these cameras in what is termed the Early Adopter market, the technophiles, the people who want to have the latest and greatest and are willing to suffer a bit for it. Sony cameras are, to be blunt, notoriously a pain in the ass. They're too small, they're buggy, they're difficult to use in myriad ways. And, they get talked up among Serious Camera Owners.. excuse me Photographers... as the second coming of Jesus. This is classic Early Adopter stuff.
Canon and Nikon, to be blunt, don't give a shit about Early Adopters. They want the mainstream.
It looks from here in the cheap seats as if the big two have decided that this is the time mirrorless makes the leap to the mainstream. The technology is mature, the Early Adopters have done their work, creating a zeitgeist of "mirrorless is the future" which is starting to resonate with the mainstream buyers. Mainstream buyers are, to some degree, starting to look in to maybe making the switch. They're suspicious of Sony, because when they dip into the photo press it's a mess of obvious hype and bug reports. And the cameras just look weird. And doesn't Sony make radios, microwaves, and movies?
Canon and Nikon have to be Chevy, today, and persuade people that these are genuine Canon and Nikon cameras, with all the goodness that goes with those names (whatever that goodness is), just slightly updated to the latest technology to make the picture taking experience a little bit better, a little bit more modern. The can still botch it, of course, there's no guarantee that they'll succeed. Sony could make that leap to the mainstream and become the dominant player.
This is not a technological competition at all, this is a product marketing competition. Can the Big Two build solid "whole products" that integrate into the brand well? Can they translate their goodwill into the new area? Can Sony build a good "whole product" and persuade the mainstream that their cameras and the accompanying ecosystem are mature, seamless, reliable, easy to use, and appropriately priced for the mainstream market? Can Sony overcome the "but they make microwaves" barrier?
Any outcome is well within the realm of possibility. Anywhere from 0 to 3 of the players (Canon, Nikon, Sony) could end up with a substantial mainstream market in mirrorless cameras. The current positions of the companies mean that Sony's path to success is quite different from Canon's and Nikon's.
But the big kids do not have to produce some astounding wunderkamera, and to do so would be a mistake. They need to make the same-old-same-old, only better. And they have to do their marketing properly.