Konica Minolta to exit photo business

Konica Minolta Photo Imaging Inc. has decided to withdraw from the photo business, it said Thursday. The Japanese company plans to exit the film and digital camera markets by March this year and will transfer part of its assets related to digital SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras to Sony Corp., it said.

The decision highlights how tough times are now for many long-time camera manufacturers. The introduction of digital photography in the 1990s brought with it a large number of new competitors, and specialist knowledge built up over the years related to things like the chemical reaction to light was superseded in importance by the ability to design and make semiconductor chips. Last week Nikon Corp. said it would end production of most of its 35 millimeter film cameras to focus on digital models.

Despite its experience in optics, mechanics and electronics, the company is finding it difficult to produce competitive products in a timely manner now that image sensor technologies such as CCD (charge-coupled device) are indispensable, the company said.

Konica Minolta and Sony announced plans in July 2005 to jointly develop a digital SLR camera. Single-lens reflex cameras use a mirror placed between the lens and the film or image sensor to project the image to the camera’s viewfinder. They typically support interchangeable lenses and are generally much faster-responding and more capable than fixed-lens cameras.

At the time the companies said the first jointly developed cameras would be on the market after about a year.

Sony plans to use the Konica Minolta Maxxum/Dynax lens mount on these digital SLR cameras. This lens mount first appeared on Minolta cameras in 1985 and about 16 million lenses based on the mount have been shipped, Konica Minolta said last year. A key advantage of this mount over others is that it relies on an auto-focus system in the camera body, so as auto-focus technology improves and owners replace their cameras, the lenses can continue to be used and take advantage of improvements.

Konica Minolta said the ability of existing customers to use their lenses with future cameras is one advantage of transferring the digital SLR work to Sony.

Sony is expected to provide an update on its digital SLR development work on Friday.

Konica Minolta also said it plans to exit the minilab business by the end of March and the color film and color paper markets by the end of March 2007.

Shipments of digital SLR cameras are forecast to climb sharply over the coming years, according to data from IDC. There were about 2.5 million such cameras shipped in 2004 and this will rise to 7.3 million in 2009, the company predicted in mid-2005. At the same time the average selling price of such cameras will likely drop from $1,359 in 2004 to $810 in 2009, forecasts IDC.

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