Can Android Save the Point & Shoot Camera Business?

Can Android Save the Point & Shoot Camera Business?


If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em seems to be a growing philosophical trend in the digital camera business.


Sales of smartphones equipped with 5 megapixel, 8MP, 12 and even 16MB cameras are devouring the low end of the stand-alone digital camera market like a digital flesh-eating virus.


According to CEA, digital camera sales are projected to drop 7.6% in the fourth quarter, which makes CEA’s July assessment of flat sales of point-and-shoot cameras for 2012 look positively glorious. Worse, six months ago, CEA projected sales of digital cameras of less than 12MP would plummet 12% and 17% in 2013. Those forecasts may turn out to be optimistic.


Since smartphones seem to be replacing low-end digital cameras for a growing number of consumers, digital camera makers have adopted two product strategies to save their business.


The first product strategy is the development of the so-called mirrorless camera, aka mirrorless system camera (MSC) or compact interchangeable-lens camera (CILC) or digital interchangeable-lens camera (DILC) or electronic viewfinder interchangeable-lens camera (EVIL). Most folks seem to have settled on compact system camera (CSC) for this new category of cameras, which is too bad—an EVIL digital camera sounds kind of cool.


CSCs are priced similarly to low-end DSLRs, $500–$800, and are designed to shift the digital camera business model away from no-longer-high-volume, low-end models to low-volume higher margin products. Or, maybe not so low volume; in July, CEA projected 2012 sales of CSC models would rise 54% and 32% percent in 2013. These numbers may turn out to be conservative once fourth quarter sales are factored in.


But, apropos to the recent holiday season, digital cameras may be resurrected by the second new product category, which is based on its mortal enemy—the smartphone.


Snapshot Saviors?

Digital camera designers have been working overtime to create models offering a vast array of physical and functional features to differentiate their wares from cutting-edge smartphones. 


But the more features digital cameras makers add, the more complicated the finished products become—sort of defeating the whole advantage of inexpensive, simple-to-use point-and-shoot cameras. 


So this past summer, two camera makers, Samsung and Nikon, decided to switch rather than fight. The Samsung Galaxy camera ($499.99, AT&T; $549, Verizon) and the Nikon Coolpix S800c ($349.95) digital camera each include three smartphone-like attributes: wireless connectivity; large touch screens; and most arresting, Google’s Android operating system. Adding these smartphone attributes is intended to blunt perhaps the most compelling smartphone camera capability—to instantly share snapshots with family and friends. 


Essentially a smartphone/digital camera hybrid, the 16MP/21x zoom Galaxy camera runs the latest Android operating system (Jelly Bean 4.1) and features a 4.8-inch screen with a 1.4 quad-core processor and a headphone jack—similar specs to the company’s Galaxy S III smartphone. 


A consumer may not always carry it with them, but the Galaxy camera has a smartphone’s processing power and connectivity for sharing. Because it runs Android Jelly Bean, the camera is actually a stubby and chubby (5.07×2.79x.75 inches and 10.76 ounces) smartphone sans conversation capabilities—plus a real camera lens.


Nikon’s Coolpix S800c isn’t quite as sophisticated as the Galaxy camera. Also a 16MP model but with “just” 10x optical zoom, the smaller (4.4×2.4×1.1 inches), lighter (6.5 ounces) S800c is equipped with a 3.5-inch touch-panel OLED and runs the older Android v2.3 Gingerbread OS on a 1.TK processor. 


Consumers also can wirelessly transfer photos from the S800c to an iOS device—iPhone or iPad—via Nikon’s Connect to S800c app.


Always Connected?

Adding Android along with an on-screen keyboard make it easier for consumers to locate Wi-Fi networks and tap-in passwords. However, Wi-Fi is not an “always connected” solution. Instead of brainlessly and instantly sharing photos as they do on a smartphone, a consumer has to muddle through locating and connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot before sharing photos from a Wi-Fi enabled camera.


Samsung has tried to address this not-always connected problem on the Galaxy camera. Along with Wi-Fi, the camera is equipped with 3G and 4G cellular connectivity. Consumers can subscribe to a data plan from AT&T for between $10–$50 a month, either specifically for the camera or as part of a Mobile Share plan, which provides consumers a bucket of minutes that can be shared by multiple devices. The S800c includes “only” Wi-Fi connectivity—no cellular.


Initial reviews of the Samsung Galaxy camera laud its Android integration—the OS and the large touch screen do make the camera easier to operate—but it takes only okay photos, considering its price, and suffers from a truncated battery life. 


Even with a camera equipped with Android, consumers still must carry a second device. Yes, there is still a large chunk of consumers who carry a feature phone (around 45% of mobile phone owners, according to most estimates) and might want to schlep along a second device for photography. But these feature-phone folks are unfamiliar with Android and are unlikely to grok its advantages and pay a premium for a camera so equipped. 


One-Off or Trend?

More important, it’s hard to know if the Samsung Galaxy camera, or even the Nikon Coolpix S800c, can be imitated—or even if anyone will want to follow them into the Android camera market. Will the industry at large consider these two Android cameras the first act of a new digital camera standard or an act of desperation?


Building an Android camera is certainly doable—Android is an open OS designed by Google to let anyone play. But other potential Android camera makers lack Android experience. Only one other leading camera maker other than Samsung—Sony—also makes smartphones and PCs and, therefore, has any experience with operating systems. 


We should note that Sony is going in its own direction here, having launched its free PlayMemories Camera Apps that work with select Sony cameras with Wi-Fi connectivity. The PlayMemories Camera Apps program allows Sony camera owners to download new features and applications to their camera as needed, to increase their creativity. Many of the apps are free, but some (Multi Frame NR and Bracket Pro) cost $4.99 to download. Users can download the apps from a dedicated website,, that’s hosted by Sony Entertainment Network. Sony promises to add new apps regularly.


Getting back to other camera makers, to create an Android camera of their own, leading digicam vendors such as Canon, Nikon and Fujifilm would be forced to wander around an unfamiliar technological neighborhood. The success of the Samsung Galaxy camera may force them to; its failure may be a relief to an industry ready to concentrate instead on higher margin CSCs.


Plus, it doesn’t seem as if simply incorporating Android adds enough to compel consumers to carry both the camera and a smartphone. Camera makers even less schooled in the intricacies and dynamics of dealing with cellular carriers may be forced to add a cellular connection to truly attract buyers.


It won’t be a surprise to see more camera makers dipping a tentative toe into the Android-enabled camera waters at CES. Whether or not Android digital cameras become a full-fledge trend will depend on whether or not the Galaxy camera or the Coolpix S800c connects—figuratively and literally—with consumers.