A Look Back: Remember When Camera Phones Were A Dumb Idea?
from the oh-look... dept
Earlier this year, I bought both a point-and-shoot camera and a new smartphone. The point-and-shoot is decent, though I had lots of trouble with the manufacturer, who originally sold me a busted camera, and then charged me to fix it (yay). However, I’ve noticed lately that I’m perfectly happy just taking photos with my smartphone instead. The camera quality isn’t quite as good, yet it’s pretty good. The shutter speed isn’t quite as fast, but it’s not bad. But, most importantly, the phone is always on me and it’s always connected — which is actually pretty useful, since the first thing I often want to do with photos I take is share them with others. On top of that, I’m finding all sorts of interesting apps that actually make use of the phone in interesting ways. Google Goggles, which takes a photo of something and then provides information about the product has come in handy a few times. I have another program that scans food barcodes and analyzes what you’re eating. It’s pretty neat.
The more that I’ve used it, the more that I’ve been remembering the stories we covered seven or eight years ago, where various tech “pundits” mocked the idea that anyone would ever want a camera phone. They were derided as some of the dumbest ideas ever, so I’d been meaning to put together a post looking back at some of those early predictions (and, um, modestly note that we correctly called what was going to happen). Just as I was searching for those old posts, someone passed along MG Siegler’s perfectly timed (seriously, thanks man) post about how the point-and-shoot market is stagnating and beginning to die, as more people just use their smartphones instead. Siegler is rightly complaining that the camera companies haven’t bothered to recognize the value of connectivity in their cameras, but like other products (standalone GPS? standalone mp3 player?) it seems increasingly likely that these will all be subsumed within the phone.
So, let’s take a trip back and see. I pretty quickly found three such articles in our archives, talking about claims by two tech pundits, about how camera phones were a dumb idea and had no future. Two such articles were by David Coursey at ZDNet and the other by Andy Ihnatko at the Chicago Sun Times. Not surprisingly, all three original articles are gone from their original URLs, but the internet never forgets. Thanks to the Internet Archive, we have Coursey’s first article where he states:
I’m not exactly calling camera phones a fad, but I’m not exactly not calling them a fad, either. My bet is there will be a relatively small number of people who shoot lots of camphone pics–in the U.S., we have a special term for these people: “12- to 24-year-olds.” A much larger group will have a camphone but never click the shutter; we call those people “adults.”
Then we’ve got the second article where he complains about how bad the quality of these things are, and states:
I just think that, if God wanted telephones to be cameras, he wouldn’t have given us separate eyes and ears…. I’ve found that the fun of the camera phone wears off quickly. The first few times one of these gizmos arrived at my house for review, I dutifully ran out and shot a bunch of pictures and sent them to friends. But the process was cumbersome, and the results not much better than the fuzzy pics my friend sent me. It wasn’t too long before I stopped thinking of these phones as cameras…. the fact is that I just find them boring.
And then we’ve got Andy Ihnatko’s, where he predicts that the phones will never be cool. Well, technically, he notes:
Barring one of those reality-warping incidents in which Superman gets exposed to the wrong kind of Kryptonite and then there’s this huge flash of light and all of a sudden, there’s a big statue of Don Ho where the Lincoln Memorial should be, camera phones never will be cool.
That was seven years ago. And yet, in the last couple of years, camera phones have become quite cool… and without a reality-warping incident. Andy works up a nice head of steam, before concluding with the following:
So: They take bad pictures, they’re expensive to operate, they drain your batteries and in a worst-case scenario they’ll cause your name to land on some sort of watch list. And yet more and more of them are manufactured every day. I’m baffled.
Look, somewhere here in the office I have a normal-looking digital wristwatch that also dispenses PEZ candy. After you’ve checked the time and determined that the Tokyo durable-goods market closes in just 20 minutes and thus it’s time to start dumping some options from your company’s pension fund, you push a little lever and a chalky cherry lozenge springs into your hand. It’s stylish and fun.
I’ve never devoted a column to that one, either, because the PEZ watch had exactly the right sort of impact on the Industry. It’s cool in a chocolate-and-peanut-butter sort of way, but it’s certainly not the sort of thing that causes columnists and analysts to spend an hour leaning back in their chairs and speculating about where this technology will wind up in three years.
Which is a bloody shame, because on the whole, the PEZ watch is a much sounder investment than a camera phone. It’s about as useful, for starters, plus it’s a one-time $7.95 investment.
However, as we noted in our response to Ihnatko at the time, the real innovation wasn’t just putting a bad camera in a phone, but that people always had their phones with them, and that those phones were connected to the network — and we noted that both things opened up all sorts of new possibilities, which we’re now seeing in common usage every day. We also pointed out that complaints about quality were likely to go away, as quality would increase pretty quickly.
Technology advances. It’s easy to condemn technology early on, but you need to be watching the trends and what makes new combinations valuable, rather than just comparing them to what else is on the market today. As we’re seeing with the camera phone market today, compared to the point-and-shoot market, over time, the technology gets better and the new things that new technology allows start to become more and more important.