Nokia sets sights on a bigger picture

10 May 2005

Shortly after Nokia launched the world’s first phone with a built-in camera in 2002, the Finnish company declared itself to be a key player in the digital camera market. Subsequent sales of its camera phones, 100 million and counting for this year alone, seem to validate its claim but as a lens became an add-on to almost all handsets it could be argued that users were unwitting consumers of a product that they hadn’t actually asked for.

Juha Putkiranta, senior vice-president, Imaging, at Nokia,
refutes this suggestion and argues that consumers are looking for converged multimedia products. “I don’t believe that it’s an accident that people have been buying Nokia products with a camera. We know that people want different functions in their devices, they tell us so, loud and clear. They also want devices to reflect their personal priorities. The functionality reflects their lifestyle,” he says.

Two weeks ago when Nokia announced its new range of Nseries multimedia phones it was the mega memory, music playing N91 that grabbed all the headlines, signaling Nokia’s attempt to grab a slice of the lucrative digital music market carved out by Apple and the iPod. But the 2 megapixel N90 camera phone with its Carl Zeiss (CZ) lens is arguably the more groundbreaking product. CZ’s long history as a leading manufacturer of camera optics spans its early adoption by NASA to picking up Oscars for its technical contribution to feature films.

The 3G N90 signals Nokia’s most aggressive attempt yet to tackle the digital camera market and rise above point-and-pray products, from all manufacturers, that have been poorly served with cheap lenses and minimal camera controls.

“We are leap-frogging in picture quality and entering a new level in mobile photography,” says Putkiranta. “Now we can provide a very high quality imaging experience for people who value it.”

The counter argument to Nokia’s assertion that consumers want converged devices, recently espoused by Gartner, is that convergence means a compromise in terms of each component. Not so, according to Putkiranta, who believes the N90 will appeal to discerning photographers. “The people who will buy it will be photographers. They value photography and know what quality is about. CZ lenses are high end and guarantee the quality.”

While Nokia sees the N90 as competing directly with stand alone digital cameras — though Putkiranta acknowledges more serious photographers will still have an SLR — CZ has a different take. CEO Dr Dieter Kurz said that “its exclusive co-operation with Nokia in the field of mobile phones” would not impact on long-standing partnerships with camera manufacturers that he considered “a different field of application”. Sony, one such partner, will clearly have to go elsewhere as it seeks to improve the lens quality of its Sony Ericsson camera phones.

The impact of integrating what CZ says is the equivalent to a mid-range digital camera lens into a phone, along with a raft of more creative camera controls, better desktop software as well as video camera functionality, will be another test for Nokia’s theory that consumers want a one-stop device — a theory that came unstuck with N-Gage, its poorly received attempt at combining a handheld games device with a phone.

Putkiranta doesn’t want to talk about N-Gage, arguing that the camera phone is a different proposition. “We make the managing of photographs and the printing easier. So simple that it really will drive the consumer adoption and take the hassle and complexity out of photography. It has become a new buying decision. Do consumers buy a new digital camera or the merged device where they get the same quality?”

Accompanying its imminent launch, the N90 will be pushed through retail outlets that have not traditionally been associated with mobile phones, but it remains to be seen if a €700 camera phone (the price before network subsidy) hits the price point and the quality threshold that can persuade photographers that Nokia is a name that can be trusted in digital photography.

Pictured are:Dr Dieter Kurz, CEO at Carl Zeiss and Juha Putkiranta, senior vice-president, Imaging, at Nokia

By Ian Campbell