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.

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Comments on “A Look Back: Remember When Camera Phones Were A Dumb Idea?”

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Michael (profile) says:

Go Techdirt

Lol stick it to them.
I’d say it’s easy to predict how “cool” something will be on a given day. You can just shallowly declare everything to be lame and you’ll be correct most of the time.
This is the lazy person’s approach. Lazy tech bloggers do it. But someone devoted to one platform tends to do so also. Steve Jobs will trash anything his company doesn’t provide, even if he’s secretly trying to produce his own version of it at the time.
It’s a good sign of when someone’s wasting your time.

Darryl says:

rewriting history, show us proof of your claims please Mike.. like links at actually work..

Remember When Camera Phones Were A Dumb Idea?

As you ask that as a question and not a statement, the answer is NO..

I dont remember it, because it really did not happen, when camera’s were first put into mobile phones, it was just ‘another feature’.

Everyone knew they were not as good as a dedicated camera, but there was NOT a big call saying it is a dumb idea.

So I check, you refer to two (2) articles (your own of course), well actually only one article, and what happens when you follow the link ?

Try it !!.

I wanted to see someone saying that mobile phone camera’s were are bad idea.. anyone.. ever…

I thought Mike would have provided that information, you know, to support his ‘claims’.. but no that was just too much to expect..

so from the millions and millinos and millions of comments about mobile phones, you able to find two example of someone saying it is a bumb idea.

Or at least you claim that is what they said, its impossible for us to tell.

Which is perfect for you,, how about giving us some working examples please.. You know to support your claims, and so we dont think you are just making it up for effect.

Re-writing history for your own gains. real history is actaully better. and provides a more accurate world outlook..

And if you can only find ONE example, that no longer exists it does not really support your claims.. so you are rewriting history..

no wonder I dont remember that time, no one does..

Darryl says:

Re: Re: rewriting history, show us proof of your claims please Mike.. like links at actually work..

well why didn’t you post the link here ??

Yes, it worked, it want to zdnet reviews page, not any article.

So give us the link, the entire single, ONE, and ONLY comment.

Also the comments mike made on the refered article, was about not that camera’s were ‘dumb’ but they did not have the resolution for serious work..

The second point mike made was that you do not use your camera all the time, but you use your phone all the time.

No, people who own dedicated camera’s do not use them all the time, and people who have mobile phones also do not use them all the time.

So the only real complaint was that when first introduced the quality of the camera did not match a dedicated digital camera.

Nothing you said, makes any difference, there was simply not a call that mobile phone camera’s are a dumb idea.

Most people think having a camera, a web browser, a few games, a calculator, a FM radio, a video camera, and video calls, word processor and so on.

Are all features and functions that most certain were not look upon as “dumb” idea’s.

and Mike, (and you) have failed to show any indication that anyone at any time ever, claimed it was a dumb idea..


Re: Re: Re: Meh...

I don’t think this is about “camera phones being a dumb” idea as much as it is the hype and fanboy nonsense notion that any of these integrated features will reduce or eliminate the demand for specialty devices. It’s not that “camera phones are a dumb” idea but just that they won’t take over the world.

Mediocre embedded devices are fine as “devices of convenience”. They’re great for the unexpected Kodak moment or for people that can’t bothered to think ahead. They’re not so great for those that can be bothered to think ahead or those that actually care about the end result.

Phone cameras still don’t measure up.

BigKeithO (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: rewriting history, show us proof of your claims please Mike.. like links at actually work..

Do you just disagree with whatever is posted on Techdirt? It gets old pretty quickly and makes your points a lot harder to take seriously.

Also a paragraph isn’t typically a single sentence. It makes your posts longer and harder to follow than they need to be. Those are your free tips for the day Darryl!

Anonymous Coward says:

Not just a camera / phone

There’s more to it than that which isn’t mentioned. Now, a phone has not just a camera, but your ‘cassette player’, wrist watch, spiral organizer (calendar and address book), compass, map, television, email, newspaper, and whatever else they can fit in it. Sure, the camera is nice, but I remember learning to orient a map with an old fashioned compass and thinking I’d never need to use it. Well hey, I guess I was right.

Anonymous Coward says:

When shopping for a cell phone, a nice built-in camera may reasonably be considered a selling point. When shopping for a camera, a cell-phone is exactly the thing I’m not looking for. Thus, when cameras built into cell phones suck as much as they did back then, the built-in camera is neither a proper replacement for a standalone camera nor a particularly attractive selling point for a cell phone. That remains as true now as it was back then.

The difference between then and now is that cell-phone cameras are good enough that people to whom cameras are only of secondary interest don’t have any need for standalone cameras anymore.

Darryl says:

Re: Re: Re:

my phone allready has that, its a nokia of some type 31 something I think, it has 2 2MP camera’s, a flash.

One camera, you can use for video calls showing yourself, or you can make vidio calls with the other camera, so you can show things facing away from you.

Of course, there is a USB connector so you can interface it to your PC, you can text from your PC, via the phone, you can upload and download, vidio’s, photo’s.

And 2 Megapixels, its quite good enough for a quick photo, or something you need to record..

For real photography, I still prefer my canon EOS450D.

That takes superb quality photo’s, with amazing functionality.

but I do not go everywhere with my cannon, but I do with my phone..

No one thought for a second putting a camera in a phone was a bad idea..

Next you will be saying putting a MP3 player, or a GPS is a dumb idea as well..

No it was a normal advance in technology, and a logical one.

Transbot9 (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Right, but the second camera is not standard yet.

What’s not mentioned in the article above is the increased accessibility of the Digital SRL Camera.

The last camera I bought was a Samsung SL 202, and while it can take good pictures, it does run into issues where the Autofocus decides to make adjustments while taking the photo, resulting in blurry pictures. This is actually a common problem with current generation point-and-shoots where the “idiot-proofing” is more problematic than not.

So the next camera I buy will probably be a digital SRL, because then I can control all the little fiddly bits as well as manually adjust the focus on the lense itself. Other than that, I don’t know if I’m going be using my point-and-shoot since my phone currently gets 5 megapixils, which is suitable for most of my needs.

a non e mous says:

Re: Re: second camera

My Nokia N95, which was made 6 or 7 yeaars, has a second camera facing the user for video calls – so it isn’t exactly a new idea.

That said, while making a video call is ggod, it hasn’t really caught on yet. Maybe it’s soemthing to do with how much the telco wants to charge if you for the privilege….

a non e mous says:

Re: Re: second camera

My Nokia N95, which was made 6 or 7 yeaars, has a second camera facing the user for video calls – so it isn’t exactly a new idea.

That said, while making a video call is ggod, it hasn’t really caught on yet. Maybe it’s soemthing to do with how much the telco wants to charge if you for the privilege….

Anonymous Coward says:

Remember when a car was a dumb idea? Slower than a horse, noisier than your mother in law, and smelled worse than either of them.

Progress is an amazing thing, and what is even more amazing is that all of this happened in a world full of copyrights, trademarks, and patents. Holy heck, innovation happens regardless, and possibly happens faster as a result.

Nothing like TD shooting itself in the foot twice in the same day.

The Invisible Hand (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Your post and the one above you (in the thread) are the funniest thing I’ve read today!

Hell, you people hate this site, yet you keep hanging around. Why? Are you masochists, retarded or do you just have a lot of time on your hands?

Oh wait, I know. It must be a case of this:


Well, good luck to both of you then.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I always get a laugh out of the term troll here. Troll is anyone who doesn’t agree with the party line. It is really too bad that so many people have such a narrow view of things.

Go back 7 or 8 years, and TD was relevant and on point. Now it’s a shrill anti-establishment piece that can’t even grudgingly admit when the other side gets things right. The obsession with the TSA pat down / backscatter story is sort of proof that it is no longer about rational discourse, and more about appealing to a very specific group of people.

Just be thankful TD hasn’t figured out you all love Mylie Cyrus, otherwise every other post would be about her.

Nathan B (user link) says:

I still agree with the quoted articles

Phone cameras are still rubbish. My iPhone camera is awful in low light, the digital zoom is useless and megapixels don’t matter. A point and shoot digital camera with optical zoom is still miles ahead.
Maybe a phone camera isn’t a dumb idea, but its a dumb idea to think that it will replace a digital camera.

Having said that, my phone definitely replaces so many devices.. a lot of which I’ve never bought. GPS, midi controller, field recorder, music player, gaming, etc etc etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I still agree with the quoted articles

Phone cameras are neither rubbish nor do they offer excellent image quality. The main reason they have begun to replace point-and-shoot cameras is that their image quality has become “good enough” and they are always available. Most any modern dedicated camera offers better image quality thanks to better optics and larger sensor, but for shots where I don’t really need zoom and have good lighting, a 5MP+ smartphone camera that can take 480P video (higher resolution than my Digital8 camcorder and not interlaced) is certainly good enough. Being able to transfer the images via usb or network, and having them with me anywhere to show people, and it’s even better.
That said, barring massive technological breakthoughs) I don’t think phone cameras are physically capable of supplanting DSLRs. There is simply too much of a gap in sensor size and optics for a pro photographer, and the issues have more to do with physical size than silicon processing.

mattarse (profile) says:

Re: Re: I still agree with the quoted articles

I agree they will never supplant DSLR’s – there will always be a subset who want/need the highest performing camera they can afford. I do see that they are slowly supplanting point and shoots though just because the quality is good enough, and the best camera is the one you have on you.

I don’t think dedicated p&s’s will ever disappear however as they will always be able to pack more technology into a phone sized camera than in a phone/gps/mp3 player, they will however lose market share to the camera phones.

Logich says:

The biggest missing change

The biggest change in all of this is that smartphones bypass the terrible MMS fees that were charged by carriers at the time. A poor quality picture is bad enough without paying a $0.10 to $0.25 to send or receive it. Once it was email or direct posting to web sites for free… I think that really made a difference.

Christopher (profile) says:

The picture quality of camera phones is bad

No person taking pictures for their family outings or anything else would DARE use a camera phone for those things. Heck, when I am out looking for pictures in my community, I carry a point & shoot that has 10MP’s or more, because I’ve experienced the bad quality of those camera phones pictures!

Anonymous Coward says:

Anyone want to transform photos into 3D objects?


ps: For Linux there is only the 32-bit version, to work on 64 bit systems you need to change the source code a bit with a search and replace to make it work and it still crashes a lot.

Cameras are so useful, it is not just photos you can take videos today, which is why so many people are upset.

Besides you can transform a little camera into a high definition digital camera using stitching programs.

Keith Sarver (profile) says:

camera phones

Whatever. Whether or not it was a ‘dumb idea’ is not the point; they are just a typical evolution of technological products for the masses, who have no idea how to take a photo, or who would even be able to distinguish those photos are generally horrible.

I sometimes wish the two cell phones I use didn’t have camera phones. I’ll stick with my film cameras.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: camera phones

Keep in mind that these cameras are *not* replacing DSLRs. I love using the Canon 5D mark II, but I honestly almost never bother with my point-and-shoot anymore because a 5MP Nokia cameraphone takes good enough pictures for day to day usage. It’s not that I don’t realize the images aren’t as good, but it’s more convenient. I see the market diverging into a high-end and low-end with DSLRs at one extreme and cameraphones on the other. Many families would keep a DSLR (or maybe a better point-and-shoot) for vacations and special occasions and cameraphones for everything else.

abc gum says:

Camera in a phone is a very good idea and has taken on a role which was in dire need. There are those out there who do not like it one bit and if allowed. will take away the camera which some think is useless and stupid.

There are many instances of law enforcement being held accountable for their actions, where the key evidence was that taken by a cell phone camera. Several of these cases resulted in prison sentences for the offending law enforcement official. So it is no wonder that law enforcement does not like them, and in fact they are attempting to stop the recording of their actions in several different ways. One is the application of wire tap laws, this has had mixed results in court and the cases that were ruled for the state will probably be overturned at some point. It has reached the point of absurdity, they are even calling those who wield a camera “shooters”.

There has been at least one bill presented at a state level which proposed all recording devices include a remote kill switch that would be under the control of government officials. You can imagine how this would be used and certainly it would be quickly defeated.

So, yeah … camera phones serve a useful purpose indeed.

Anonymous Coward says:


Mike, You claim there wasn’t a reality-warping incident. I claim that there was: the release of the iPhone. Prior to that, Smartphones were only fit for those with pocket protectors or briefcases. And of those two, only the first group (the smaller of the two by far) would have got any use out of a camera phone. Yes cameras were being introduced prior to the iPhone, and yes they were improving. But I think the reality-warping the the iPhone did to the smartphone market really set the ball rolling.

Anonymous Coward says:

All the add-ons can prove quite useful at times, but it does bear mentioning that each additional add-on comes at a price, and a significant one at that, when placed in the hands of persons oblivious to the fact that they represent additional money making opportunities for cellular service providers.

Given many of the data plans offered by cellular service providers that give new meaning to the word “parsimonious”, I daresay that monthly sticker shock when the cell bill comes in reflects to a substantial degree why they were added in the first place to phones sold to ordinary consumers of cellular services, and especially to subscribers who are on the receiving end of things such as text messaging who are forced to pay even though they did not solicit any such messages.

Yes, nice add-ons calculated to make monthly bill sky rocket, both for the user and for unwitting recipients.

Griff (profile) says:

It's not about the connectivity

There aare two kinds of camera.

Really good ones (eg SLR, for quality pics.
And point and shoot for just capturing the moment.

And there are correspondingly two kinds of picture, ones where quality matters (eg a landscape, portrait, whatever) and something just recording an event (the time when John fell down that storm drain when drunk).

When I was at college in the mid to late 80’s, I knew two photographers. One was all SLR and lenses, the other had small Olympus compact in a leather belt pouch. Only the second of these would catch the hilarious event on the way home from the pub, because he took his compact EVERYWHERE.

When you first have kids you often decide you need a REAL camera (or a video camera) because there is so much you’ll never want to forget. But experience starts to show you that
– you can’t carry an SLR every where you go
– you can’t predict when the most valuable moments will happen.

So it comes down to trying to have a camera with you ALL THE TIME. And there’s only a few ways that is going to happen:
– it’s on your keyfob
– it’s on your watch
– it’s in your wallet
– it’s on your phone.

Long before iPhone happened, Nokia had become one of the top sellers of digital cameras. My wife and I choose camera phones when it was still an extra feature specifically to not miss moments with the kids.

Now we have citizen journalism, movies of events that nooen would have ever seen otherwise, and it’s JUST because so many people are carrying a camera.

I’ve probably MMS’s about 3 pictures in my life.
All my pics go from Phone via USB to home NAS to Cloud. Not through an overpriced data plan, and not through a carrier’s network.

The camera on a phone has taken off simply because it is there when you need it, and it’s simple.
The fact that it has taken off more of late is not the iPhone, it’s that the cameras are finally good enough. My very basic phone now is better than my digital camera purchase of 5 years ago.

The connectivity / smartphone angle is hardly relevant at all.

If you think differently, explain the Flip video camera. Is that a success because of connectivity ?


Anonymous Coward says:

The only people that I know which use their camera phone daily are the same people that need to update their facebook or twitter feed to keep me informed with personal information they think I might find interesting.. like when they are “standing in line at the quicky mart” or “suffering from the burning ring of fire after a spicey mexican meal”. 2134 pictures of themselves on facebook has to be a good thing.
It’s a phone with a somewhat useable picture taking device… it’s still not replacing a camera.

Alan Edwards (profile) says:

Compacts dying - not for me

I went to a Christmas do last week, and took my Fuji HS-10. I realised part way through I’d have been better off with my cheap Samsung compact. The compact would fit in a pocket so I wouldn’t have to cart the case around, I didn’t need the big zoom and there wasn’t enough light for the high-speed video I wanted to try of the people dancing.

I’ve never been any good a photographing people, so the pictures are all rubbish anyway.

theodp says:

All Hail Philippe Kahn!

2007 Slate Article: “Ten years ago, Philippe Kahn was walking around a hospital with a cell phone and a digital camera. His dadly mission: to share pictures of his newborn baby girl. With an assist from Radio Shack, he linked the two devices together and e-mailed photos to family and friends around the world. The day marked a twin birth of sorts: the cell phone camera and daughter Sophie.”

Tom Westgate (user link) says:

As a PR student I have been reading your blog for quite some time and found you articles interesting as well as helpful for my PR course.

I am now a ‘Follower’ of your blog. I have recently started writing my own blog about being a PR student as well as current affairs. I would really appreciate it if you would follow me at http://2plus2pr.blogspot.com/


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