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Sunday, August 17, 2008

The revenge of the pocket camera – The Sony DSC700 takes on camera phones

I predicted the death of the pocket cameras few years ago, when the camera phones pushed into 5MP. I was of the opinion that they would disappear and be replaced with great camera phones. The only cameras to survive would be the digital SLRs.

I have to revert my view, the Sony DCS700 seems to be a solid step forward. Resolutions have gone up 10.2MP, the zoom is at 4x optical zoom. the cameras double as ‘photo wallets’ it has a stunning 220ppi 3.5” touch screen, 4GB of internal storage, capable of storing 1000 full res images. It has a digital album SW built-in. Furthermore they have interesting SW like ‘no closed eyes’ feature, where the camera takes two images, compares images to see if eyes are closed and presents image with eyes open or does an alert to photographer to try again. This kind of attention to detail has not been the norm of asian SW.

The following thought struck me: my cameraphone has not evolved in a couple of years. The phones have stagnated at 5MP, with some exception, the ‘activate camera and take a photo’ speeds are still terrible. The flash is bad and there is no optical zoom. This coupled with general bad album SW slow photo navigation. Gone are optical zoom attempts like N93. I understand why N93 did not sell, it was too expensive, too big and did not really do good photos, and zooming in video left a strange side noise. LG has pushed forward with their Viewty concept which on the get go feel like a good camera, but is in catch up mode to Nokia N95. The SE902i is promising, but I have not had a chance to test it, even without test it at best could be only marginally better than the Nokia N82, which is just a fraction better than N95, which is already old.
The question is, can a phone and pocket camera be fused into a proper value add solution, rather than a lowest common denominator convergence product?

First the relationship to a phone and camera is different. People seem to treat their cameras more delicately than their phones. This is not a dealbreaker.

Secondly the ergonomics of photography is landscape rather than portrait, this is a minor issue, and can be fixed with good placement of keys. Widths of 52mm-58mm is adequate for a good camera. 
Compact optical zoom is mechanically difficult to implement, expensive and quite fragile. I do think one could make the phone a tad longer and stick in optical zoom a la the small SONY, question is ofcourse how proprietary is that micro mirrored zoom, I am not sure if it is Zeiss or Sony technology. I do not know how hard vendors have tried to squeeze optical zoom into phones, but from the outside, it looks more like roadmapping decisions, ‘user do not need zoom, enough pixels is good enough’.

Thirdly: the emergence of devices built on OMAP 3430, a new TI super processor could help to change the landscape. Shutter speed and sophisticated image processing is available. But this is not a miracle drug.

But none of these fix the core problem with mobile imaging: no one has figured how to make any money from images in mobiles. If no money is made, then the operators are not interested in selling something better, read more expensive. In fact better cameras can have a massive impact on profitability if all bigger images are uploaded via their network.

I think operators need to encourage innovation in mobile imaging, I think there will be opportunities to make money. The best opportunity is in printing. This was seen as a commodity business. Fortunately there is a renaissance with printing of photo books and different types of cards. With innovation in handset SW, and printing technology, it should be possible to create a solid business around collaborative event photography and creation of physical memories.  Companies like Moo, a British start up in the printing domain has proven that one can  innovate in printing. I hope they could show the way to the bigger guys.

These kind of services where three players are required to co-operate, have proven hard to get off the ground. Handset provider is needed to host, distribute and simplify the application and its integration to the OS, the network provider is needed to move the data and simplify billing and probably market the solution. The solution provider needs to build the solution and this is where most investments are sunk and risk is carried. The business cases look weak when operators want quick returns, handset vendor does not want to be commoditized.

So in the meantime I either wait for someone to call the get the use case solved and simplified or just get a Sony Cybershot DSC700 and wait.

01:40 PM in Technology | Permalink


Good post, but I'd challenge the idea that sending bigger pictures over the network makes a big (positive) impact on profitability - users won't do it unless they are on very cheap or flat rate data tariffs (at least, not after the first bill shock) , so by making it easy operators are just boosting data congestion without any extra long term profitability...

Posted by: raddedas at Aug 17, 2008 11:48:58 PM

I've also changed my view of future of pocket cameras (at least for a few years...). Personally I think the future of pocket cameras lies in cameras like the Olympus my sw - series. Waterproof and shock-proof cameras that you really can take anywhere any time. OK images (far from great) but from pleases, times and perspectives that were impossible before. The day when you can go diving with your camera phone isn't here quite yet... :)

Posted by: hanno at Aug 19, 2008 8:32:08 AM

Christian have to say that over this year have upgraded from Cybershot to Nikon D300 with a handful of lenses. Having returned to SLR cameras am enjoying the time taken to compose photos and RAW makes touch ups a lot easier.

Kids are looking at Cybershot but might prefer C905i for Christmas with its 8 Megapixels and GPS.

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