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Sunday, 23 October 2005 10:00

It's not about the phone

It's a weird feeling to be given a 21st century state-of-the art masterpiece of electronic technology to find that it shares its number one attribute with my seventy year old antique bellows camera.

There it was, stamped on the lens of Nokia's newest camera phone "Carl Zeiss Tessar."

I've had the camera for about 45 years and always assumed that 'Tessar was simply a brand name long consigned to the corporate archives of Carl Zeiss. Curiosity aroused, I googled it.

"The Zeiss Tessar is a famous photographic lens design conceived by Paul Rudolph in 1902. The name Tessar derived from the Greek word tetra to indicate the typical four lenses scheme. The Tessar is an evolution of the Cooke Triplet design in which the rear element is replaced by a cemented achromatic doublet. A Tessar comprises four elements in three groups, one positive crown glass element on the front, one negative flint glass element at the centre and a negative flint glass element cemented with a positive crown glass element at the rear."

I was impressed. And they crammed all this into a camera phone! Elsewhere I found: "Many photography experts consider the Zeiss Tessar lens to be the most successful camera lens of all times."

Nokia never mentioned the word "Tessar" when they launched the N90 along with a couple of other new phones in Sydney last week, but otherwise they played the Zeiss connection for all it was worth.

The N90 by the way is the world's first camera phone to be equipped with a Carl Zeiss lens and if you are someone who peers through lenses for a living - either at the very small, the very distant or the very famous - you'll know that lenses don't come much better than Carl Zeiss and haven't done so since the late 18th century  when he of that name started making them in Jena in eastern Germany.

On hand for the launch of the N90 were a bunch of Zeiss people with lots of expensive and impressive optical gear that admirably demonstrated the acuity of the Zeiss optics but otherwise had very little to do with photography and even less with mobile phones: microscopes, binoculars and more exotic items for arcane scientific purposes.

If it had been up to me I think I'd have pushed the long and illustrious history of the Tessar instead.

Nokia had also given the N90 to a professional photographer with instructions to go forth and shoot and he was on hand to related his experience and impressions.

The N90 is 2 megapixel camera. Launched along with it was the N70, also a 2 megapixel camera but with an anonymous and ordinary lenses. Nokia handed out 6x 7 photos taken with the two cameras. I couldn't tell the difference and it was on the tip of my tongue to ask the professional photographer if he could either. 2 megapixel is still, after all, a level of resolution a deal lower than photographic emulsion.

Deciding it would be a bit like saying "the Emperor has no clothes" I stayed silent.

One question was asked of the photographer, after he had extolled the photographic merits of the N90. "What's it like as a phone?" "Don't know" he replied. "I haven't tried it."

That to me really summed up the whole event, the direction mobile phones are heading and the reason Nokia made such a fuss about the Zeiss relationship: off which clearly the N90 is but the tip of the iceberg.

We are moving to a market for mobile devices where the phone is the subsidiary function. These devices will be sold and we will make our buying decisions based primarily on their non-phone functions. If you're someone who needs to take lots of pictures or short video clips for your work you might well go for a N90. If you want to cart around enough music for a month of uninterrupted listening, you'd pick the N71, the MP3 player that just happens to be a phone as well, and that comes with a 4Gbyte hard drive.

In the same week as Nokia locally launched its N series phones it announced, globally, it's E (for enterprise) series. These are not just phones they are functional extensions of the corporate IT network for mobile applications and as such can be centrally managed as part of that network.

They are claimed to be the first in the industry that give IT managers tools to remotely control and configure them, and wipe all sensitive data should they fall into the wrong hands.

Nokia is the world's largest manufacturer of mobile phones. It also claims to be the world's largest manufacturer of digital music players and handheld computers.

While it might never aspire to compete at the top end of the market for any of these products, you can bet it intends to move a lot higher up the sophistication scale than the products we've seen to date.

The N90 is the vanguard: It might look like a phone with a camera, but Nokia is working very hard to position is as a pretty good digital camera that happens to have a phone as well.

No wonder Apple is rumoured to be planning an iPod phone. It's  OK to have Motorola put iTunes into its phones, but long term probably not a good idea if you want to own the customer and the brand they are buying.

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