Converging platforms – the consumer camera and the smart phone
The writing has been on the wall for the point and shoot camera for many years now, and today the camera-smartphone convergence moved a little bit closer.
As reported by DP Review and The Register, Nikon today announced the Android based Coolpix S800C. A 16Mpx snapper that is surely more than enough for the average consumer. I won’t dig at all into the specs of the camera or how it compares to others on the market, I’ll leave that to the dedicated review sites already linked to. What I do want to talk about is what this convergence means for both industries going forward.
The megapixel race
The camera manufacturers have for years now been duking it out in a megapixel (Mpx) race, a race that has led to some consumer cameras focusing more on Mpxels than actual image quality (IQ) whilst those outside the CaNikon duopoly have differentiated themselves by other measures such as in camera software enhancement and throwing away legacy mirror boxes. It seems that the silly megapixel game has finally subsided with fantastic IQ being achieved by camera’s ranging from 12 Mpx upwards.
Invention of the telecamera
Over in the smartphone segment some players that operate in both imaging and telephony played upon this strength and released phones that had strong camera functionality, Samsung and Sony being the best examples. Pure-play communications company, Nokia, is the one company that has gone in harder than any when it comes to making a phone that can challenge the point and shoot camera.
It got damn serious in 2010 when Nokia release the Nokia N8, A Symbian based smart-phone packing a 12Mpx sensor and optics designed by Carl Zeiss (the crème de la crème of glass), the N8 remained king of smart-phone imaging until Nokia went all out a few months back and released a 41 Mpx smartphone known as the Pureview.
Pureview, game set and match
A DP Review review concluded that the “ PureView technology has piqued the interest of serious photographers, being one of the most important innovations – arguable [sic] the most important - in mobile photography since the smartphone era dawned five or so years ago”. The first reaction people have to the Pureview is to dismiss the 41Mpx sensor as some sort of gimmick, to be honest this was my first reaction. The innovation is in the way Nokia have used those extra pixels in what is known as down-sampling. Effectively the Pureview technology takes the full megapixel count of the frame and performs analysis to work out which pixels are noise, which pixels are duplicating information already contained in a neighboring pixel and throws away as much unnecessary information as possible until finally whittling down the image size to something more sensible (8, 5 or 3 Mpx). Take an 8Mpx image from an iPhone 4s and sit it side by side with the same size image out of the Nokia and you’ll see what I mean. Essentially the Nokia is a camera that makes telephone calls.
I bring up the Nokia because it is a prime example of how much software is going to impact the consumer imaging segment going forward, sure this is a niche phone, but it shows where the market is going. Nokia is by no means the only player in this space, companies like DXO provide the technology that enhances images captured by tiny image sensors into something that would rival the first round of professional digital SLR’s.
So cameras and smartphones are merging, what does that mean?
Facebook shocked the markets when it forked out one billion USD for Instagram, a small start-up known for its photo sharing app and social network, a business launched less than two years ago. Some may disagree with me, but Mark Zuckerberg is no fool, he knows that social photography has a big future and wants Facebook to be front and centre.
The vibrant application community built on top of Android and iOS is what gives these platforms their value. There is nothing particularly bad about the also-rans, Windows Phone and WebOS, they were just too late to ride the virtuous cycle in which applications feed platform growth. By being the first to market running Android on a camera, Nikon is leading the charge into what in the end could relegate it to a niche role in the professional segment leaving the likes of Apple, Samsung and Nokia to service the consumer photography market.
In summary, putting Android on consumer cameras makes sense, the apps will enhance the experience by allowing users to do more with their device; share, play and extend. The only problem for companies like Nikon is that the sooner the inevitable happens, the true camera-phone, the sooner they will lose a substantial amount of sales. Going forward I expect to see some cross industry partnerships and maybe even acquisitions or mergers.
Canon and Nikon can probably survive just fine being pro-only whilst Sony and Panasonic can bring their imaging and communications technologies together into compelling devices. Olympus may need to focus on mirrorless system cameras and continue its great “Tough” range where it can differentiate itself from the device in everyone’s pocket.
It’s going to be an interesting space to watch for the next 3 – 5 years.