The Digital Ecosystem: Prospering in the Smartphone Era

The Digital Ecosystem: Prospering in the Smartphone Era


This month marks something of a significant anniversary: it has been 50 years since Kodak launched its Instamatic camera. Of course, it’s been more than a century since that company all but originated consumer photography with its iconic Brownie.

It’s also been about 15 years since the mass acceptance of digital cameras began, and almost 10 years of the popular use of cameraphones. Next up, we’ll have wearable cameras and mounted cameras everywhere.

What does all of that add up to? Simply that the photographic medium is constantly evolving and the photography business has to aim at a moving target.

In a series of columns this year, we’ll scrutinize the overall digital imaging ecosystem. In this opening foray, let’s look at one of the most impactful areas today: Mobile Imaging.

It’s obvious the smartphone is now the pervasive product, the capture device of choice for most consumers. Correspondingly, every day there is more talk of declining camera sales, especially for point-and-shoot models.

What is still surprising is that the camera business let this happen twice: when digital photography first became mainstream, the top-selling camera for many years came from Sony—a consumer electronics company that was not a market leader in cameras up until that time. Canon, Nikon and others didn’t fumble forever, of course. They are also now leaders in compact P&S camera sales—but that is a declining business because they sat complacently and watched history repeat itself, as once again another industry introduced a capture device that consumers prefer for many reasons: the cameraphone.

For five years, many pundits such as myself pushed the idea that camera makers, faced with a flood of phones with bad cameras built in, should develop and market good cameras with simple phones built in. We were told the idea would never work, because it was too expensive and the carriers wouldn’t allow it. And then, of course, Apple (a computer maker!) came out with a pocket computer that had a phone and a camera built in—and it was expensive, but the carriers did “allow it.” You know the rest; now almost everyone has a smartphone.

Here’s another way in which history repeated: When I started covering digital photography in 1997, I was stunned at how many diehards constantly repeated one refrain: Digital wasn’t necessary because film wasn’t broken. My take on it was that film couldn’t be any more broken. Analog photography meant when a moment arose that you wanted to capture, you had to pray you had film in-camera if not at the ready. After you snapped your 24 or 36 exposures, you had to pray again that you succeeded in capturing a good photo or two. It was only days or weeks later when you had paid for processing and printing and looked at your envelope of small paper pictures that you would find out how few, if any, of the shots were exposed even close to correctly and blur free.

Digital photography and the advent of the LCD on the camera for picture review meant you would know right away, in the moment and at the scene, whether you got the shot or not. And if photography is primarily about capturing the memory, how could that feature not be more important than anything else for most people?

When my fellow analysts and I at Future Image started covering cameraphones in the early 2000s, I was again stunned at diehards dismissing the devices based solely on the inferior image quality. They seemed not to notice what most people did with their photos: look at them right away; share them face-to-face right away; edit and enhance some images; then upload and share some photos. A standard stand-alone digital camera couldn’t do half of those things.

Photography is shared. As the cameraphone evolved into the smartphone, the cost and complexity of uploading from a phone or transmitting images from one carrier to another disappeared, and Internet-based photo sharing became standard, it was clear mobile imaging delivered a complete photography experience. Cameras were only image capture devices; phones were photography devices.

Optimism Ahead
So just hand it over to the Telco’s? No, I am not here to paint a bleak picture of the photography industry’s future. Just the opposite: despite the significant strategic errors, I believe there is now more potential, more possible products and profits to be had, than ever before.

How can that be? Simple: whereas a few short decades ago only a small proportion of the overall consumer population had a camera and in any way enjoyed photography, today everyone does. More people are taking more photos than ever before. More potential customers are experiencing the power of pictures than ever before.

Yes, many if not most will be satisfied with their phone for capture and services like Facebook for sharing and display; but unarguably, a portion of everyone is a larger customer base than the few who had a camera in the 1980s or earlier.

These people want even better image capture, even simpler photo sharing, better image enhancement than an Instagram filter—and large prints and other products to show their art in ways that a photo on Facebook cannot.

Coming up, we’ll examine more of the digital imaging ecosystem: what cameras need to offer for upgrade sales; image capture evolution and new technology; the importance of social imaging as picture-taking promotion; screens versus prints; and products and services for making the most out of all our images.

The future is looking bright.

–Photography consultant Paul Worthington is the consumer-imaging analyst for the 6Sight Report and is an editor for PMA Newsline