Photokina 2008 Interview: Olympus

Taking an hour away from the bustle of the main Photokina exhibition hall we sat down to chat with Toshi Terada, Product manager of SLR product planning and Heino Hilbig, Olympus Head of Corporate Communications & Marketing Services about Micro Four Thirds, standard Four Thirds and the future.

Our conversation - much of which had to take place without the tape running, unfortunately - covered a wide range of subjects, from the impact of Micro Four Thirds on the future development of the E-System to the burning question of the renaming or splitting of the Olympus Talk Forum (as regular visitors this was a subject they brought up, not us).

We started, inevitably, with Micro Four Thirds and the mockup shown under glass at Photokina.

Obviously this is a really early mockup, but how close is this to what you expect the final product to look like?

"Concept-wise, this is the direction, but the final design will be changed. The size should be the same as the mock up."

So is this absolutely as small as a Micro Four Thirds camera can be?

"For the moment, yes. The key issue here is that in order to make [the mockup] happen a lot of components need to be reduced in size; components that do not yet exist. Not from our side, but also not from anyone else. And that's exactly what we're working on now."

Asked about the Four Thirds lens roadmap Mr Terada admitted that as they very much in uncharted waters here, part of the process they're currently undergoing involves trying to find out exactly what kind of lenses the first buyers of the camera are likely to want. We pointed out our own Olympus Talk Forum members had a list of only 30 or so they'd like to see at launch…

In terms of schedule for the first Micro Four Thirds camera, do you have a firm idea when product is likely to be available?

"Not any more this year. We should have more information to disclose by PMA, but we're still deciding exactly when the final product will be announced."

Asked about the partnership with Panasonic for the supply of sensors Mr Terada confirmed that "currently we're using Panasonic sensors", but refused to rule out a change in the future, commenting that they will never be "fixed with just one company" when it comes to sensors.

When Four Thirds was launched several companies signed up to the deal, some of whom have had effectively no input at all - seemingly happy just to see their logos on the marketing materials. Micro Four Thirds is a far less 'open' standard, with Olympus and Panasonic requiring that any company joining the party actually bring something to the table. We wondered if Micro Four Thirds, with its potentially far larger market, was proving more appealing to other companies. "Yes, as far as I know, some, but I can't say who, obviously", Mr Terada told us. "we have inquiries!"

Perhaps the most pressing concern we've been hearing from existing Four Thirds users is the issue of lens compatibility; Micro Four Thirds cameras exclusively use contrast detect autofocus (CD-AF), and there are some big questions over whether legacy Four Thirds lenses will offer any kind of autofocus when used with the Micro Four Thirds system (via the lens mount adaptor announced with the Panasonic G1). We asked Mr Terada for some clarification on this, and the other recurring theme in discussions on's forums; that Olympus could slowly abandon the original 'standard' Four Thirds system and concentrate all its resources on Micro Four Thirds.

We'll start with a simple question that needs a clear answer: If a lens currently will not CD-AF focus on a camera such as the E-420, will it ever be able to focus on a Micro Four Thirds camera?

"As you know the current contrast detect AF capability is only available with a small number of lenses, but we are trying to make it possible with more lenses by changing the firmware. Within the next one or two years, one by one, we will try to install autofocus capability into the existing lenses."

So to clarify, if somebody already owns such a lens you will try to get that lens to focus on a Micro Four Thirds body?

"Yes, via firmare upgrades. We cannot guarantee for all lenses, but we will try, and we believe we should be able to do it for every lens."

Mr Terada confirmed that even with such firmware upgrades most older standard Four Thirds lenses should focus far more slowly than dedicated Micro Four Thirds lenses, but was keen to stress that "we can say to current users of Four Thirds cameras - you can keep your existing lenses for use with this system".

Regarding the standard Four Thirds system and the worries amongst current users that they would be left behind, and the fear of a gradual migration to Micro Four Thirds there was no hesitation: 'The main reason, to be honest, why we have shown the new Four Thirds camera so early - which we wouldn't usually do - is to underline our commitment to the system. This will not be the last product you see in the E-series!" Heino Hilbig told us, "We clearly see this as two distinct product lines."

Mr Hilbig also confirmed that Olympus had at present no intention of producing 'SLR like' Micro Four Thirds cameras, commenting, "It always has to be this type of product because otherwise it's competing with cameras like the E-420, which wouldn't make sense businesswise".

Worries from current users that the potential for Micro Four Thirds to become more successful than the current E-System could jeopardize the standard system were unfounded, according to Hilbig. "What we learned observing how our company has changed since the E-System project was launched many years ago is that there is a lot of development coming from our attempt to make the best possible professional camera we can, and the fact that the technological developments have made their way down to cameras like the E-420". "A lot of the developments and patents that we are using now - even in compacts - are coming from the professional SLR side. And what we have learned, the company will never give up again", he added.

Interestingly it seems that Olympus and Panasonic's cooperation on the development of Micro Four Thirds went no further than the establishment of the system (previously there was some co-development and sharing of components such as the mirror box) - when we asked whether the Olympus models would use the new ultra fast CD-AF system seen on the G1, for example, we were told that Olympus was developing its own, also entirely new system.

Talking about future development and the possibility of a range of Micro Four Thirds models from low end to high end (the mockup shown at Photokina being somewhere in the middle), Mr Hilbig pointed out the valuable experience gained from the use of a common platform in the current E-System, adding that removing the mirror allows the designers to "really play a lot" with the design, adding "it's completely open".
Asked whether the Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera would offer an optional electronic or optical viewfinder (we have seen many concerns expressed about 'screen only' cameras) we were told that whilst both are an option, those decisions have yet to be made.

The new E-System camera
Moving away from Micro Four Thirds for a moment we had a play with an early prototype of the new, as yet unnamed E-System SLR. Offering what is essentially a E-3 functionality in a body that's a (small) step up from the E-520, the new model is designed to go head to head with the Nikon D90 and Canon EOS 40D in the 'high end enthusiast' segment of the market.

We started by asking Mr Terada about the new camera's positioning. "This is our middle class camera - it sits in our lineup between E-520 and E-3. Most of the photo capabilities come from the E-3, like 11-point AF, 1/8000th shutter speed, 1/250th flash sync speed".

I presume that's from a reuse of components from the E-3?

"Yes, most of it. But we reduced the waterproof protection to get a smaller body compared to the E-3, and also a lighter body. So now we are clearly distinguishing the line, the E-3 offers professional durability, whereas this is for the photo hobbyist".

Asked about the timing of the new model Mr Terada wasn't able to give us a definite date on the record; "Officially we're saying the launch date is first quarter next year into the European market", was all he could tell us.

Asked about the new camera's sensor Olympus remained tight-lipped (we're guessing it may be the same as recently debuted in the Panasonic G1, but as that would put the E-3 in a rather awkward position, perhaps not). When asked about video capabilities, again there was no comment, although Mr Terada did point out that the camera lacks an HD video output socket, implying that perhaps this won't be the first Olympus SLR with video. As Mr Hilbig commented: "the question is, does it make sense for a camera at this level to offer video?"

Mr Terada: "currently it's obviously possible to include a video function into this type of 'real' SLR, but it's still, I think, not the best solution with current AF systems. We've launched the new Micro Four Thirds system, which is more suitable for video capability because more special communication is necessary between body and lens. That's one reason, but regardless of the technical issues, we're not that keen on installing the video function on high end DSLR at present."

The Quick Fire Round

Towards the end of our meeting we pulled out the list of questions posed by Olympus Talk Forum regulars and started to fire them at the unsuspecting Olympus executives. We didn't get very far down the list before our next meeting started to loom and our time was nearly up, but everyone agreed that this was a valuable way for the company to communicate directly with its core users and we will be doing it again as soon as possible. The following transcript has been edited only for clarity.

Are there any plans for a really long lens for Four Thirds (over 400mm)?

"It's not decided yet; one of the benefits of the Four Thirds system is to have more compact telephoto lenses, and this is what we are concentrating on. The market for such long lenses (over 800mm equiv.) is very small, but I like to try to plan it".

When is the 100mm macro coming out? Some people have been waiting a long time…

"Of course; I hope next year, it will come, but I can't promise. In our official roadmap it says 2007 or after… it's still on the roadmap and it's still 2007 or after. And that's the important message; the lens is still in the roadmap."

Well, still being in the roadmap isn't really the important message is it? Surely 'it's coming next month' would be an important message?

(Laughs), "No, the important message is that there is a lens development plan in place that will continue for many years from now for Four Thirds. Do not for a minute think that we are 'getting out' of Four Thirds."

Staying with lenses, are we likely to see the professional zooms being upgraded to SWD versions?

"It's hard to say. A lot of it will depend on demand. Once Micro Four Thirds has been launched our planning and marketing teams will be looking at the entire lens roadmap again; the lens roadmap is not fixed."

So from a resource point of view will the additional R&D overhead involved in developing Micro Four Thirds have a knock-on effect on Four Thirds, and particularly on lens development?

"No it won't. And don't forget we have a compact camera team. Micro Four Thirds camera is similar to compact camera, therefore their efforts also contribute on Micro Four Thirds development."

On the lens side is work being done on Micro Four Thirds that will benefit the original Four Thirds too? Is there much cross-over?

"They are two separate systems with two different basic user benefits; Micro Four Thirds is all about compact wide lenses whereas standard Four Thirds is about compact telephoto lenses."

"We also have to think about what's going to happen long-term. If this concept (Micro Four Thirds) is successful, what's the future, long-term for compacts, especially high-end compacts?" added Mr Hilbig. "If you consider, for example, all the investment we're currently putting into lenses for bridge cameras, like the SP series, you're talking about a 'one time' investment, and once the camera is discontinued you throw away that investment because you can't necessarily use it for the next model. The good thing on the system development of lenses is that you only develop that lens once, and you build it forever; it stays in your lineup. So we don't have to redevelop a 20x zoom lens all the time, so we can devote more resources to developing new system lenses."

Interview conducted by Phil Askey and Simon Joinson, report by Simon Joinson