April 12, 2004, 10:22 AM — There's no doubt that cell phones with built-in cameras are taking the world by storm. While I'm not going to predict that cameras are going to be in essentially every phone (quite the opposite, as I'll explain later), the near-term forecast is for the increasing availability and market penetration of these combined devices. Many folks love them. I'm not among them, for reasons I'll get to shortly; but the appeal is undeniable.
And that appeal is based on the same anytime, anywhere phenomenon that drives wireless itself. Wouldn't it be great to have a camera with you all the time? After all, I'm sure everyone from time to time has wished that they had a camera when the right moment materialized, whether it be an important (and even news-making) event, an opportunity for a snapshot of a friend or loved one, or just an appealing landscape or sunset. Digital photography is justifiably all the rage, with a broad range of cameras, software, and printers now available. It looks like silver halide is doomed.
And the convenience of the camera phone - you can take a picture and send it directly to another phone, via e-mail, and even post it immediately to a Web site in some cases. But I've generally been disappointed with the quality and ease-of-use of cell-phone-based digital cameras, and I've never really seen a good picture taken with one. I think this is due to a number of factors:
The resolution of most camera phones is just too low. Many top out at just 640x480, although a few with higher resolution are now becoming available.
It's usually hard to control exposure and lighting. Most camera phones have point-and-shoot simplicity, but what you get doesn't look all that good.
Using camera phones can be challenging. They are, after all, phones first and foremost. Lining up a shot often feels funny.
Digital cameras consume a lot of power, perhaps cutting into your precious battery life and thus talk time if you use the camera a lot.
In short, this may be a good example of combinations that sound great but ultimately don't work well. Another example here is the combined television/VCR. This makes sense, too - a VCR is almost always used with a TV in consumer applications. But combined units that I've tried compromise on quality to much too great a degree. You're better off, I believe, with separate units.
But separation may not be all that convenient if you take a picture and want to send it right away - in that role, the camera phone, with all of its limitations, is clearly a wonderful idea. But is there a way to really get the best of both worlds - a great phone and a great camera - without having to physically combine the two together?