Will Wireless Create a Paper Tiger?

European wireless editor Guy Kewney points out that wireless technology is having repercussions in the oddest places...or is it?

You would think that the makers of photo paper would be rending their garments. All those camera phones producing low-quality, tiny pictures that can be viewed instantly and transmitted to remote sites. Its throwaway art: who would want to print it?

However, at the PaperWorld exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany, this week, quite the opposite is true. Kodak, Ilford, Konica, and Mitsubishi are on a roll, and if Kodak isnt smiling, its because Kodak has far too much investment, still, in legacy photography.

The myth of the paperless office should have alerted everybody except those who forgot to put their teeth in when they woke up to the fact that the spread of wireless cameras or camera phones would increase the bite taken out of the revenue stream by paper makers.

"The current generation of photo-cameras are poor, yes," opined Ilford CEO Dai Jones at the Frankfurt show, "and the market for high-quality paper to print the pictures out is minuscule."

"But what you have to focus on is the incremental market," says Jones. "Maybe only a minority of the pictures taken this year will be judged worth keeping; but every one is a photograph that otherwise wouldnt have been taken, if not for the availability of a camera in someones mobile phone."

And this year, Intels new smart phone chipset will hit markets with a built-in 3.2 megapixel camera solution. The smart phone lenses may not be professional quality, but a much greater proportion of the pictures taken will be worth printing out at post-card size. For sentimental reasons if not for their photo-salon artistic merit, some of those photos will even stand on the mantelpiece at full A4 or letter size.

Digital cameras have overtaken conventional cameras in the sales charts in many markets. What the paper makers are waiting for, of course, is for the instant gratification of digital to make the leap to instant printout. And wireless is a key component of this.

"The mini-lab business is huge," commented Jones. "All the people who have been providing instant print developer equipment to pharmacies and corner shops are now starting to launch their latest products with ink-jet technology."

Already, these instant laboratory setups are springing up in the tourist trade. Get on the Alcatraz ferry in San Francisco or the glass-bottomed tourist fish-watching boats in the Golfa de Roses in Spain or go whale-watching in New Zealand, and when you get back to the dock, youll find a professional-quality glossy picture of your group, framed and ready to buy. Its irresistible for the camera owners, of course, because its the only picture theyll have of the holiday with themselves in front of the lens. But it creates market suction for the providers of the mini-labs.

"Where the market is headed, is to make it possible for people to print out their own pictures while on holiday," says Jones.

The key to making this work is quality and reliability. What the paper makers are worried about is the legacy of the early digital cameras, which still leaves many amateur photographers convinced that digital photo printing cant match silver halide pictures.

"The early cameras were poor resolution, and the early ink-jet printers gave smudged effects and colors that faded rapidly--in one famous case, after three days," recalls Jones. "We have to persuade the customer that if they buy the right paper for their printer, it will give them quality as good as, or better than, what theyd get from a disposable halide camera."