NEC Readies Card-Sized Camera Phone

NEC has developed a cell phone with a built-in camera that is about the same size as a credit card. The device, which is less than half an inch thick, will be on sale before the end of this month in China, NEC says.

At first glance the N900 looks less like a handset and more like a small, thin digital still camera such as Casio Computer's Exilim. Its plain face is cluttered only by the lens, a light, and the company's logo, But a glance at the back of the device reveals a telephone keypad sitting to the right of a 1.8-inch color TFT LCD. The display has a resolution of 120 pixels by 160 pixels and occupies about half of the rear of the device.

The phone measures 3.3 inches by 2.1 inches by .3 inches, giving it a volume of around 2.4 cubic inches. That's around half the volume of a current cellular handset, Hisatsune Watanabe, associate senior vice president of NEC's Central Research Laboratories, said at a news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday held to announce the new product.

Engineers worked on the layout of components and control of stress exerted on the device to help achieve the reduction in volume, he said.

Small Size, Big Features

Despite its size, the GSM handset isn't light on other features. It supports GPRS, WAP wireless Internet, SMS, MMS, and 40-tone polyphonic ring tones. The camera is a 300,000 pixel model and the phone also includes a quick shooting mode that can take 4 images in one second.

It weighs 2.5 ounces and battery life is quoted as 85 hours on standby and 70 minutes talk time.

It will go on sale in China this month and is targeted at professionals and those who are style conscious, says Koji Yamazaki, chief manager of China business operations at NEC's mobile terminal unit. It has to be used with an earpiece and microphone as these are not built into the main body of the phone.

Yamazaki didn't provide an exact price for the handset but says it was likely to come in towards the upper-end of the premium cell phone price bracket, which he defines as between $480 to $845. In Japan, it should cost around $947, he says. Despite its high price tag, NEC is hoping to sell around 100,000 units per year of the N900 and subsequent models based on the phone.

Competitive Market

In putting the cellular telephone on sale first in the Chinese market, NEC is bucking the conventional practice of Japanese electronics companies releasing their latest and greatest handsets in the domestic market first. NEC is positioning the N900 as a flagship model for China and hopes the telephone--one of 20 new handsets it plans to launch in the Chinese market in 2004--will help raise its profile and market share.

China is a very competitive cell phone market with most major international handset makers and numerous local companies battling for the attention of consumers. It is also a fast expanding market. At the end of 2003 there were 269 million cell phone users in the country, up from 207 million at the beginning of the year, according to data from China's Ministry of Information Industry.

The N900 is also part of the company's plan to become a major player in the market for third-generation handsets in China, something it will not be able to accomplish without a strong hand in the current-generation 2.5G market, says Yamazaki. The Chinese government has yet to issue 3G licenses and is not expected to do so until 2005 although NEC has already begun eyeing the prospective market and has located its worldwide 3G handset development base in China.

The company doesn't have any current plans to sell the N900 outside of China or offer versions compatible with other cellular network standards however using the basic design to produce such devices is possible and hasn't been ruled out, it said.

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