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A camera phone tirade

We have really good digital cameras so why bother releasing them in the first place? It seems they score high on the cool scale.


March 1, 2006  


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Several years ago when I regularly attended telecom trade shows –back when the sector was in the midst of its version of the tulip bubble, and trade shows were THE place to be — I used to joke with other members of the media that some company (pick one) was announcing, “The network is now available in blue.”

It was a jab at technology that is introduced simply because it can be introduced. Like throwing spaghetti against the fridge to see if it would stick, some vendors would launch products that seemed to subscribe to the “if we build it, they will come — and pay” theory of market research.

It helped their cause, of course, if the product in question scored high on the coolness scale.

This is pretty much how I feel about camera phones. Yes, they’re cool, but what, really, do we need them for? We have digital cameras, really good digital cameras.

They do the job much better than a camera phone, and as the technology matures they’ve become much cheaper and smaller.

A five megapixel camera is now tiny enough to slip into a pants pocket or clutch purse, and it’ll create stunning photos. So why does one need a camera phone?

Promise vs. Reality

Apparently, I’m not alone in this attitude. A study published in February by technology research firm In-Stat found that many people who do not have a camera phone have all sorts of grand ideas of what to do with one.

But the study also discovered that once people started using their camera phones, reality sets in: They’re disappointed by poor picture quality and frustrated by slow networks and the awkwardness of creating and sending pictures using these devices.

In-Stat notes the following:

* Most camera phone users also have a high-resolution digital camera. Only 3% of respondents use their phone as their only digital camera.

* Most respondents take fewer than 10 pictures per month with their camera phone.

* Only 5% of respondents print their camera phone pictures, or share them via operator-sponsored web sites.

So what are they used for? Upwards of 67% of respondents say they take pictures to personalize the screen of their phone, while 49% say they use pictures for caller ID.

The downside is that if these early users are turned off by their disappointing experience, they’ll be less likely to upgrade to a bigger, better camera phone in the future.

The lesson here for wireless users is, “make sure the product/device/ application is actually useful before spending money on it.” For business users and those who manage such devices for corporations, camera phones may cause more problems than they’re worth.

So much for privacy

And speaking of cool stuff that has the potential to cause more problems than it is worth, 29-year-old Amal Graafstra of Washington state has voluntarily implanted a Radio Frequency Identification Tag in each hand.

The tags allow him to open his front door, start his car, log into his computer, and do other cool things that apparently the rest of us have trouble doing.

The tags in Graafstra were designed to be implanted in livestock to, for example, track cattle shipments across borders.

Given concerns about mad cow disease, it not only speeds up the processing of paperwork: it also makes sense to be able to trace where a given animal came from, in case it turns out to be infected.

But just as camera phones raise all sorts of privacy issues (which is why they’re banned from many health clubs), tagging people presents all sorts of opportunities for abuse. Those who consider George Orwell’s 1984 not as a cautionary tale but as a source of inspiration are probably rubbing their hands together with glee over the story of Graafstra.

They don’t need to invent Big Brother: some of us are ready to do it for them.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached (on his mobile) at 416-878-7730 or trevor@words-tm.com.