Canon is definitely late to the party when it comes to developing a professional mirrorless system, however, being late isn't always a bad thing. There are advantages to being second or even third to market when it comes to new products. Unfortunately for Canon, Sony seems to have anticipated this with the a7 III and competing is not going to be easy.
Not so long ago Canon discussed how they had been slow when it came to innovation. One of the points that Canon's CEO made was about how latecomer manufacturers have a lot to gain. This is, of course, true in many cases because requirements for research and development are much lower. The cost of manufacturing can be lower too due to certain parts and materials becoming available to buy. Brand reputation has also helped Canon remain very popular in the market and trends would suggest that they may continue being popular when they release their own full-frame mirrorless option. All of the hard work and research that Sony has done is now available for Canon to take advantage of and their current larger market share will obviously help. Essentially for a company like Canon they can simply waltz into the market without having done much work and still be successful.
Sony, on the other hand, seems to have different ideas and their answer is the a7 III. This "basic" model from Sony features an incredible amount of features, something not very common for entry-level full-frame cameras. Considering how most companies release their cameras, entry-level cameras generally do not offer many great features. They tend to be cameras which offer the bare minimum and this has remained relatively true for the most part. The Sony a7 II, for example, wasn't much of an upgrade from the original Sony a7, save a few improvements to the build/design and the addition of iBIS.
The a7 III, on the other hand, is a very significant move against the norm because this camera is incredible. The camera is so good it's making Sony's own camera line-up a little confusing. Not only is it making people question whether or not they should buy the a7 III over the a7R III, but this "basic" model is also competing with their flagship camera: the Sony a9. In fact, in some areas, the a7 III is actually better than the more expensive a7R III and these are not superficial differences either. The a7 III has a much better autofocus system, significantly better low light performance — which actually rivals the a7S II — and also offers better quality 4k video.
The question is, why does this "out of character" release matter so much and how does it impact Canon? Well, in short, this creates a very steep barrier to entry and the economic cost of entry is potentially much greater now than it was previously for Canon. Releasing something mediocre might be damning for Canon due to the a7 III and now, releasing something significant enough to get the attention of the market will cost much more than what they probably anticipated.
Canon is notorious for being reserved when it comes to new releases. The drip feed mentality of Canon has annoyed many photographers and caused many individuals to look elsewhere for better and newer features. The alternatives might not be perfect but they are good enough for a vast number of individuals. Sony is the most viable option to switch to for many Canon shooters due to their feature-filled cameras and also the fact that adapting Canon lenses is really easy.
Canon is in a little bit of a quandary because they have a lot more to lose than Sony does. Sony as a company not only has a large enough budget to compete but, they can also take many more risks. This is why we're seeing Sony throw as many features as they possibly can into their cameras to stir up excitement, even at the cost of reliability on occasions. The Sony a7R II was effectively an unfinished camera that would overheat and the a7 III has been shown to overheat too in some demonstrations. Even with this, Sony cameras are gaining a lot of popularity and the risks they've taken seem to be paying off.
Canon, on the other hand, has a fully developed system that is soon to be obsolete due to needing to move to mirrorless, whilst still needing to cater to their DSLR sector. If they release a mirrorless camera that's too good then they risk cannibalizing their current line-up. Although Canon has discussed how they are willing to cannibalize their current line-up this sounds more like lip service. Unless Canon has set aside a large enough cash cushion or they release a fully developed line of cameras, lenses and, accessories in a very short period of time, they won't want to undermine their current systems. Chances are, Canon was probably going to release something relatively mediocre based on current standards. Unfortunately, if they do, many Canon shooters may feel that Sony is the better option and this is primarily down to the fact that the a7 III is such an incredible and cost-effective option. As mentioned above, the cost of entry for Canon is much greater now because of this intentional and strategic move from Sony.
It's true that Canon may be able to build their mirrorless system whilst using the EF mount as a crutch. This is with adapters of course, and many — including myself — may not like the idea of that, however, it's still a viable option. Alternatively, it may be a smarter move to continue with the EF mount on their mirrorless cameras, which means not investing in two different lens mounts at the same time. The EF mount is far from being dead right now and has received a number of new additions. Lenses like the Canon 85mm f/1.4L and three new tilt-shift lenses. This demonstrates a pretty strong commitment to it, and it doesn't seem like the EF mount will be going anywhere over the next few years either. In any case, the competition is definitely heating up and the mirrorless market could get interesting.
What are your thoughts on Canon's future and what do you think they will do for their mirrorless camera?