Lunch with Olympus' manager of SLR product planning

The message is Olympus hasn't forgotten about Four Thirds but you'll have to trust us on that

Left: Toshiyuki Terada, Right: Ian Burley (editor FTU)

Toshiyuki Terada, or 'Toshi', manages the Olympus SLR product planning team in Tokyo, Japan. It was our pleasure to meet him for lunch earlier today here at our office base in Apsley, Hemel Hempstead. Toshi was in the UK for a brief two day visit primarily to get feedback on the newly-launch Olympus Pen E-PL1.But it was also an opportunity to ask Toshi about the future of Olympus DSLRs in the light of their concentrated effort on the Micro Four Thirds Pen product range and subsequent the lack of a new E-System DSLR model in over a year.

Toshi has been visiting a number of UK magazines and was surprised that he'd been quoted online as indicating that an E-3 replacement was in the pipeline and that it would have a conventional optical viewfinder. He said to me that he could not remember being that specific, and he wasn't going to be that specific to me either. The specifics of future plans are commercially sensitive. All Toshi would say was that his team are definitely working on the next generation of Four Thirds products and that it's not difficult to work out that much of this work would be focused on the higher end of the E-System product line. I take this to mean that Micro Four Thirds overlaps with the budget-end of the E-System DSLR range, and in any case it's the upper end of the E-System range that is most in need of updating.

Speculation that Olympus was abandoning conventional optical viewfinder DSLRs in as little as two years was also dismissed. Olympus is developing the mirror-less Pen Micro Four Thirds platform and the conventional Four Thirds E-System DSLR in parallel.

I asked Toshi if, now that the Pen E-PL1 had been launched, the product development resources within Olympus would now be weighted more towards Four Thirds and the E-System line. Toshi's reaction was almost one of curiosity; implying surprise that I thought that R&D had been pulled off Four Thirds in the first place. "Many technological developments are common to both and new features that you see in our Pen cameras will also be applied to future E-System cameras," Toshi explained, adding: "We could not have separated our Micro Four Thirds and Four Thirds development effort; it would not have worked that way."

I also detected a difference in the expectations of Micro Four Thirds by Olympus compared to Panasonic from some of the things Toshi was saying. Panasonic's stated aim is to fill a gap in the market that is formed of people who wanted something better than a compact camera but had rejected a DSLR because of size and weight and the perception if lack of ease of use in DSLRs. "Like Panasonic, we want to attract compact camera users to upgrade to our Pen cameras. But we also hope that later they will upgrade to an E-System DSLR once they have learned about the real beauty of photography through a Micro Four Thirds camera."

Although Toshi diplomatically avoided any specifics concerning details of future Four Thirds DSLR models, he made no attempt to deny that future Olympus DSLRs would feature HD video, and he understands the aspiration for higher resolution LCD screens and improved autofocus performance. "I think that autofocus with a single point, especially with SWD lenses, is already very good, but we have been asked to improve continuous autofocus," agreed Toshi. Asked about LCD resolution, Toshi was explained: "If you look at our latest LCD screens, I think the quality is really very high. The advantage of larger screen dots is that the screen will work better outdoors in bright light." But he conceded that there was a demand for higher resolutions.

I reminded Toshi of the expectation of the new 100mm macro lens that has been on Olympus' lens roadmap for some time now. He greeted this with a smile: "I don't think we actually said this would be a 100mm lens, only that we indicated in the chart that it would be around 100mm!" Beyond that, Toshi didn't say more on this subject, except that it would be released in due course.

Out of the existing E-System DSLR line-up, Toshi's favourite is the E-620. As he clearly liked the compact dimensions of the E-620, I asked him if the much larger E-3 was the right size, explaining that many have and still do question that its large size is at odds with the compact ideals of Four Thirds: "Yes I do feel it's the right size after consulting with many professional photographers. A much smaller DSLR body, like an E-420, is not as comfortable to use with large lenses."

I quoted reports that Olympus' manufacturing capacity was limited, so meeting demand for the Pen models, let alone DSLRs, was a problem for Olympus. Toshi was quite unequivocal in his response: "Clearly if there is demand then we must adjust manufacturing capacity accordingly."

An area that Olympus has not covered itself in glory is the topic of autofocus performance with its Pen range; single shot autofocus is dependable enough, but slow in comparison to what Panasonic has achieved, and while Panasonic's continuous AF works, the Pen continuous AF is next to unusable. Toshi says that the next two Micro Four Thirds lenses from Olympus, the 9-18mm ultra wide zoom and the 14-150mm super zooms have better AF motors and lower mass internal focusing which amounts to much faster AF. The 9-18 is due to ship next month, and the 14-150 in May.

While Toshi was not in a position to talk specifically about future E-System plans, the clear message is that new products are under development, and it was interesting that he feels that Micro Four Thirds could be a stepping stone for some to a Four Thirds DSLR. In the mean time, patience is the only advice I can offer!

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