Cameras Don’t Stand Alone

(commentary)

One thing that doesn’t get mentioned in the “smartphone is killing compact cameras” debate is the notion that technology sometimes allows emerging economies to leapfrog infrastructure hurdles. 

Let me give an example. In Africa, for instance, cell phones took off in ways that were originally not expected. Why? Because it’s far cheaper putting up cell towers near people than it is to wire everything together. It’s highly common now in Africa for people to have no wired phone but to have a cell phone. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but the primary thing I want to point out is that sometimes new technologies are such enablers that existing products and technologies just get left in the dust. 

Solar is another thing making an inroad in Africa. Again, it’s the same problem: do you invest in one big monolithic thing (power plant) and then try to wire it up to everyone? In a big city environment that might make sense, but more and more in the urban and rural environments of emerging markets I’m seeing solar appear. 

Indeed, those aren’t the only two. Satellite TV was another of those infrastructure skipping things to be successful. Thus, where a decade ago I might visit a small remote place that didn’t have electricity, phone, or TV service, today I find a solar panel on the roof alongside a satellite dish, and an owner who has a cell phone. No wires needed from some central location. Enough power to deal with their limited demands (though you’d need battery technology, too, if you wanted to watch TV at night ;~). 

So what’s this have to do with cameras? 

Simple: smartphones did the same thing to digital cameras that cellular phones did to landlines. It’s a little tougher to see, but it’s there. 

Let me ask you a question: where do you store you photos? 

Most of you reading this probably said “on my computer.” What if you don’t have a computer, though? What if you can’t afford yet another high cost, high tech investment like a dedicated computer? 

Studies show that most smartphone users keep a large percentage of their images on the phone. Some keep all their images on the phone. Many “move” images to where their connections are (Facebook, Google+, Flickr, Dropbox, Tumbler, etc.). If they do a lot of image taking (most don’t), they are usually managing it with something (e.g. iPhoto, and maybe even iPhoto on their phone or tablet). Both Apple and Google, the primary smartphone controllers these days, probably want those photos to reside in their cloud and be managed by their software long term. 

Now ask yourself this: where do the Japanese camera companies fit into this? Right, they’re like a coal-fired power plant in the middle of the Congo. 

Okay, let’s go another direction, video. Who has the necessary horsepower to collect, edit, and distribute video? Oh, computer owners. Does it make a lot of sense to push video in cameras sold to emerging countries? Not right now. Perhaps when smartphones have 1TB of storage in them, but even then it would be tight (one single video project I’m working on has taken up 6TB of storage). So when the Japanese camera makers say in interviews that Americans and Europeans seem more interested in video than, say, the Chinese market, guess what they’re really saying? 

Indeed, I keep seeing camera executive after camera executive talking about China these days. It represents a big potential set of new users to them. Then when China’s overall market and GDP expanded in 2013, why are all the camera makers saying they’re disappointed in their sales there? 

Could it be that it’s Africa with cell phones all over again? Yes, there are a huge number of Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian (add any emerging market you’d like) customers that will be taking more photos in the future. The question being answered by smartphones is the infrastructure and workflow that enables them to do that. If instead you required a computer at home and additional software and disk storage space galore, well, I don’t think market adoption will happen the way the camera makers think. I’ll bet that those photos in emerging markets will be cloud-stored and cloud-managed and Internet-displayed only. So what feature in current cameras allows them to do that quickly, conveniently, and without additional hassle? Heck, do they even need or want 12mp, let alone 16mp or 24mp? File sizes, when we start transporting them mostly via wireless means, start to become incredibly important. 

The two companies best poised to deal with these issues are Apple and Samsung. Especially Apple, since it has more of the software and cloud tools necessary already in place. 

Personally, if I ran a camera company I’d want my cameras to operate seamlessly with Apple and Samsung smartphones and tablets. Seamlessly, as in automatically recognized, connected, and cooperating. I’ve yet to find one camera whose smartphone app is reliable enough to not crash regularly, let alone do what I suggest needs to be done. And I need to be able to drive what the smartphone will do with my images from the camera. I can’t keep taking the smartphone out of my pocket and asking it to do things. If that’s the answer, then I simply want a better camera in the smartphone and my problems all go away. See the dilemma for camera makers now? ;~)

When I write about smartphones having disrupted cameras, it’s not just on a superficial level (taking of images) that this happened. It’s a fundamental disruption of workflow, from start to finish. Building better cameras won’t solve the camera makers' problems. They have to change their whole definition of how cameras fit into people’s lives. 

text and images © Thom Hogan 2014 -- all rights reserved // @bythom on twitter, hashtags #bythom, #gearophile