Japan's Konica Minolta Group, makers of highly regarded digital and film cameras as well as color film, papers, and photo minilabs, announced Thursday that it would be closing the camera and photo divisions of its business.

The news shocked shutterbugs and camera fans who have been using Konica Minolta products for years.

Konica Minolta Photo Imaging and Sony (SNE) have worked out a deal to transfer "assets related to digital SLR cameras to Sony," namely Konica Minolta's Maxxum series cameras along with such innovative technologies as Konica Minolta's Anti-Shake technology.

The agreement also includes the Maxxum/Dynax lens mount system. According to Konica Minolta, plans for marketing new Sony-branded D-SLRs are targeted for this summer.

On the basis of its ongoing "selection and concentration", Konica Minolta Group will now concentrate on "non-consumer businesses," such as copiers, fax machines, printers as well as its medical and graphic imaging technologies.

Whether Sony will continue to use the Maxxum name is not clear.

This could also mean that new Sony D-SLR cameras will work with the 16 million Konica Minolta legacy lenses that have been sold since 1985, since including the lens mounts for the bodies in the deal allows Sony to tap into the established user base, a Konica Minolta spokesman said.

Customer service operations for Konica Minolta cameras and related products, including digital and film cameras, lenses and accessories, will also be transferred to Sony. That means that any digital or film cameras bought by consumers will also be serviced by Sony.

The company's decision to withdraw from the camera business means the eventual elimination of such well regarded products like the Dimage series of digital cameras, its entire line of film cameras, as well as its color film, color paper and minilab services.

According to analysts, Konica Minolta has been the world's third-largest maker of camera film after Kodak (EK) and Fuji (FUJIY).

At this time there's no word on whether or not Konica Minolta will continue making certain products that will be sold to other companies under OEM license, such as its paper coatings or ink-jet paper products, which could be marketed under another brand name.

Signs of trouble surfaced last November, when Konica Minolta stated that it was "shifting [its] expansion strategy to focus on high-value-added products."

But in a year that saw the introduction of a vast array of incredibly inexpensive D-SLRs from companies like Canon (CAJ) and Nikon, it appears that such fierce competition was too much for Konica Minolta, which introduced only one D-SLR this year, the 6.1 megapixel Maxxum 5D, in July 2005.

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