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May 21, 2009

Nokia has still more to say about cameras

ESPOO, Finland – Nokia launched its first camera phone, the Nokia 7650, back in November 2001 and helped changed the face of digital photography, the Web, and mobile phones. The latest leap in camera phones for Nokia is the Nokia N86 8MP.  It has shown that Nokia still as something to say about mobile phones and photography. I have been an avid user of camera phones since the launch of the Nokia 7650. And I am currently using the Nokia N86 8MP. Continue reading for a bit of a journey past the milestones in camera phones at Nokia, and maybe get a glimpse of the future.

The first
The Nokia 7650 was chock-full of firsts for Nokia: it was the first S60 phone, the first with a camera, and the first with MMS. It was also way ahead of its time, a slick slider with an amazing screen. The Economist put it on its cover as the Monolith from “2001”, saying it was the future of computing.

At the 7650 launch, Nokia was showcasing both the camera and MMS by sending three art students into Barcelona, where the launch was taking place, to take pictures of the city and send them back via MMS to the show floor, where the photos were displayed on a large screen almost immediately. In this day and age, it might be hard to imagine the wonder of all this back then.

The funny thing is how the simple VGA camera (uh, 0.3 megapixel) was a lot for us, not only wowing us with the quality, but also straining our GPRS networks.

The next big milestone for camera phones at Nokia (and for me) was the launch of Lifeblog and the Nokia 7610, in early 2004. The Nokia 7610 was the first megapixel phone for Nokia. And Lifeblog was a multimedia diary that made it easy to manage and browse images and videos on the phone and PC and also made it easy to post images either to Flickr or TypePad.

By this time, photo sharing online was big, with a ton of manufacturers making camera phones and a ton of folks posting online to their heart’s content. With the Nokia 7610, Nokia began to say that photography on the mobile phone was starting to compete with digital still cameras. Indeed, Nokia worked with Rankin, a fashion photographer, who used the Nokia 7610 in the process of making a portfolio of artistic photographs.

Further leaps
The year 2006 was the year of the 3 megapixel camera phone. Two key products that year were the Nokia N73 and the Nokia N93. The N93, a follow-on to the Nokia N90, was designed mostly as a video camera, with a swivel screen and optical zoom. The N73, a favorite of mine, was more of a camera than a phone: it had a mechanical lens cover that would activate the camera upon opening and had a dedicated camera shutter key (standard in most Nokia camera phones now).

But the real game-changer was that 3 megapixel was starting to be of enough quality to compete with analog film. What went from Polaroid snap-shot quality in earlier phones had become good enough to replace the family digital snap-shot camera. And the Nokia N73 sold in the millions.

At the top of our game
Nokia’s push into camera phones was primarily driven by a division, set up soon after the launch of the Nokia 7650, dedicated to imaging phones (what Nokia called camera phones). Before the group was formally dissolved in 2007, one of their last devices built around photography was the Nokia N82, a slick 5 megapixel camera phone with a Xenon flash.

With the N82, it seemed that the imaging team had reached some sort of pinnacle in the fusion of mobile phones and cameras. The Nokia N82 was hailed as the best cameraphone of the year. Nokia became the largest manufacturer of cameras (surpassing digital and analog camera manufacturers). And uploading photos and videos online from mobile phones is now a part of global culture, changing the face of how we socialize, tell stories, and participate in journalism and capturing news.

Is there more to say?
While the dedicated imaging team is long gone, it is clear that Nokia still has more to say about camera phones. This year, Nokia launched the Nokia N86 8MP, Nokia’s first 8 Megapixel phone (see video below). I’ve been using one for a while now and it will definitely replace my Nokia N85, which is the N86’s older sibling (but only 5 megapixels).

My surprise when I first held the N86 when it came out was that Nokia was able to humbly raise the bar once more on what a camera phone should be like. Not content to just shove any old 8 megapixel element into a phone, the camera in the N86 is the latest in a long line of camera phone elements from Carl Zeiss that Nokia has been putting into Nseries phones. Also, there’s software in the phone that is similar to current digital cameras that provide excellent image quality and helps create panoramic photos

Not that I really know (I don’t), but I don’t think Nokia is done saying all it can say about camera phones. When asking a colleague, who does know more, his comment was, “What do you think? We’re just going to say we’re done, turn off the lights, and walk out?”

I think there’s more to come. So feel free to discuss until we find out what my colleague meant.