The Emergence of the Phomera

Back when Philippe Kahn first shared with his Silicon Valley friends what is typically credited with being the first actual "camera phone" image in 1997, little did we know what would come of that. Technically, communicating cameras go far, far back from that, typically via early attempts at video conferencing and a few pro press setups. But this notion of a consumer taking a picture and having it immediately shared with with 2000 other folk via the cellular network was something different. 

Kahn's sharing of the image of his daughter Sophie just after her birth was a much talked about thing in Silicon Valley, and not because Philippe Kahn was a well-known player and entrepreneur (founder of Borland Software, amongst others), but rather because of the combination of two things: an image captured and shared via a cellular device. In Japan, the camera phone that J-Phone introduced in 2000 went on to get more than half of their subscriber base using cell phones with cameras within a couple of years. The seeds of change began flying everywhere. Here in the US, the first widely available phone with camera became available from Sprint in 2004. By 2008 a cell phone maker (Nokia) became the biggest maker of cameras in the world, and the iPhone was beginning to make a strong charge. 

Today smartphones with cameras far outsell stand-alone cameras. But the real danger for the camera companies isn't the ubiquity of camera phones, it's that the phones are now starting to get real camera upgrades and thus become much more competent. Video appeared around 2007 and now is in every camera phone. Pixel counts have gone up, hitting 41mp in the Nokia 808 PureView. Even the more common smartphone models went quickly from 3 to 5 to 8 to 13mp. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom adds a compact camera sized sensor and a zoom lens. The upcoming Sony Xperia i1 has a compact camera sized sensor and the ability to add accessory lenses. We're now in the realm where camera designs are dictating differentials in phone designs: welcome to the Phomera. In the coming few months you're going to see quite a few of these Phomeras come to market.

This is going to finish off the shift the camera market has already started. Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax don't have a phone business. Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony do. Smartphones have already crippled the compact camera market, at least for the low-cost, generic type compacts. The rise of Phomeras will probably spread that decline to virtually all compact cameras. Yes, even waterproof ones (watch for water resistant phones that are coming). There will be no safe harbor in compact cameras short of going big sensor, and that's a relatively small and shallow one. 

As I noted in my coverage of the Samsung Galaxy NX, I don't think building the cellular structure into larger, more sophisticated cameras is the right call, and I especially don't think that building the phone interface (touch screen control) into higher-end cameras is the right answer, either. 

I do, however, see a not-too-distant future where our casual camera is always a smartphone, and our more sophisticated camera talks to the smartphone relatively directly. If you've read my Gear Where You Are article and understand my concept of nests and hubs, my thinking goes like this:

Phomera (smartphone with advanced camera capabilities)

  • At home — connects to the home hub/nest via WiFi, automatically moves images through the hub/nest to where you want them
  • During transport — you don't tend to take pictures while in transport, but if you do, they're completely cellular based (either stored for later delivery when you get to your nest or moved via the cellular connection to where you want them)
  • Truly mobile — everything is completely cellular based unless you're near a WiFi access point (but even that transition would generally be handled without your intervention if done correctly)

Camera (high-end compact, mirrorless, DSLR)

  • At home — automatically connects to the hub/nest via WiFi and automatically works with a catalog/browsing product on your desktop machine to get all new images that were taken since last contact exactly where you want them (cloud, local, back-up, etc.)
  • During transport — camera generally doesn't connect to anything; you're taking pictures in stored mode
  • Truly mobile — same as transport, though with an option to use WiFi or Bluetooth to transfer to/thru the smartphone as available and desired

Note that when the camera makers try to put cellular functions into cameras (as Samsung did with the Galaxy NX), you end up with another data plan you have to pay monthly fees on. Not a good solution. Perhaps wireless operators will get with the program and allow multiple device allocation on a single data plan, but they'll fight that one as long as they can as it might mean less revenue for them. I remember a series of meetings with AT&T back when I was in Silicon Valley working on something that predates the smartphone and watching as AT&T did a complete reversal of path as they realized just how much data our device might be putting on their networks. Originally, they were going to add our device to your current plan for a one-time charge. Then they realized they could simply charge it as a separate device and ultimately collect more cash from customers. With duopolies in most places around the world controlling access to the airwaves, they have a lot of power to decide what this Phomera Phad will cost you.

Note that the Phomeras have a real problem with data plans: as their pixel counts go up, the data stream load they can put on your cellular plan goes up (assuming you don't edit or downsize first). Curiously, I haven't seen any of the camera phone applications really figure this out yet. If the final destination is a shared Web site post that only needs 1-2mp images, where's the "capture full and communicate downsized" option in all these cameras? I want my "original" (full capture) and an appropriately sized "transfer" (downsized) image when I'm shooting on a smartphone. The transfer image may be different for different intended sharing locations, so needs to have options associated with it. The original stays on the phone until I hit a WiFi or sync station, the transfer image uses the cellular airwaves to get somewhere fast. 

Why do we have so much uncertainty and confusion and incomplete products in the camera and phone business? Remember, we're only 16 years into the notion of cellular phone + camera, and the concept really only hit full steam in consumer-facing products about 6 years ago. We're now in an area of danger, where hardware cycles are one to two years, and where the software landscape you're interacting with on the Web is under constant flux. It's easy to design hardware that suddenly looks like it "doesn't get it" because something changed in the social/Web context while you were going into manufacturing. This is one reason why Apple/Google and to a lesser degree Samsung/Microsoft are at the forefront of everything now: they're the best connected between the hardware and software sides that are constantly changing as we ramp up the growth curve with new and improved products.  

Thus, we're in a tricky space at the moment. While smartphones are ubiquitous and getting more capability, they're not completely delivering on their promise. Meanwhile, dedicated cameras haven't figured out how they fit into the rapidly changing market. Be prepared for some dead ends ahead. But also be prepared for some Phomeras that come closer to getting the mix right.        


text and images © Thom Hogan 2015 -- all rights reserved
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