Camera Phone Marketing is Out of Focus

Camera phones are being pushed hard by carriers hawking 3G services, but the low quality of the images they produce relegate them to toy status. Find out why "disposable imaging" is giving Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin red eyes.


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In the dubious quest to turn cell phones into the pocket-sized princes of all media, adding digital images as opposed to, say, digital music to phones makes sense for several reasons. These reasons include the lack of thorny copyright and digital rights managenent issues, the spontaneity of photo opportunities virtually anytime and any place a cell phone might be, and the natural tendency to share photos that is accommodated by a theoretically ubiquitous wireless network. How many members of your family share your musical taste as opposed to the number of people who are interested in sharing family pictures? Theres even potential crossover into the business market in such imaging-heavy industries as real estate and insurance.

Up to this point, however, camera-enabled cell phones have come in two varieties—add-on cameras where the afterthought design is obvious before you use the camera, and integrated models where its apparent only after use. Its easy to excuse low image quality in the entry-level $100 camera phones. A recent Register review of the Sony Ericsson P800, though, found that while the phone probably represents the state of the art at this time (at least for the U.S. market), its camera is also disappointing.

Its a common shortcoming. Overall, camera phones produce images that are fuzzier than Robin Williams chest. In fact, the best thing that can be said about camera phones at this point is that theyve probably killed the market for toy standalone digital cameras that have equally poor image quality.

One can accept that current cost and processor limitations are keeping the resolution of these devices low, but its sad to watch carriers and handset vendors try to defend this shlocky output by inventing a new category of pictures: "disposable" images. The line goes that if you have something really important to photograph, like your childs first birthday or the worlds largest Cheet-o, youll want to break out the Olympus.

But for the minutiae of your daily life, such as sharing funny typos in street signs or capturing incriminating behaviors that youll use against the don when you turn states evidence, youll want to have your trusty cell phone to share the blur with your buddies. Besides, they say, bandwidth is expensive. You dont really want to waste your packet pittance on some high-res picture of Aurora Borealis.

Spare us the excuses. Anything worth shooting is at least worth considering keeping; smart software should take care of sending the low-res version of a photo to low-res devices. Ideally, it would be great to see more camera companies using Bluetooth to link with cell phones, but Im not holding my breath.

Now that Sony has broken the two-megapixel barrier in its Clies, I suspect that by next year youll start to see camera phones that have the digital support for better images. Hopefully, manufacturers will invest in lenses good enough to produce output at least rivalling a "one-time-use" drug store camera, and we can put all this talk about disposable images into the trash.

Does the poor quality of images from camera phones click you off? E-mail me.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.


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