The Future of Photography

An iPhone can do things with its pictures no dedicated camera can hope to compete with
An iPhone can do things with its pictures no dedicated camera can hope to compete with

A really interesting article on the future of photography from a pro photographer with a very analytical mind (Thom Hogan). I’ve added his site to my permanent links, I like it so much.

Hogan raises many interesting issues, notably that tech-obsessed early adopters have ceased to dominate demand for digital cameras (because cameras are “good enough”), that cell phones are eating out the point-and-shoot market from below (certainly our iPhone 4s have made our Panasonic TZ5 redundant), that mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (i.e. Micro 4/3 et al) are eating out the DSLR market from below (I’d like to see some actual figures on that), and many of today’s camera buyers value convenience over absolute technical quality. Today’s DSLR is an image capture device without a lens which needs to dock to a computer to be really useful. To jump to the ultimate conclusion, Hogan argued earlier that serious cameras need to be computing platforms capable of running third party software.

While I very much appreciate his take, I’m not sure I agree with his conclusions. I think what a camera needs to be is an image capture device without a lens or a computer (or with a simple computer that can be ignored or bypassed or swapped out). In the short term this means becoming an iPhone (or similar device) accessory, while in the longer term this means being a cloud device.

Now, Nikon (et al) could essentially build a proper touch-based computer with a real operating system (Android, say) into their cameras and then allow third parties to provide extra software for their “platform”, but I think it’s pretty optimistic to expect that Nikon (or Canon or Sony) would able to produce as good an Android device as, say, a phone handset maker. Heck, most of the camera companies seem to have quite a bit of trouble creating decent menu systems for their cameras. Even if Nikon could manage this feat, how can they expect to attract third-party developers to such a niche market? The iPad, which has no built-in camera and no convenient mechanism for docking with cameras has a positive embarrassment of riches in terms of photo editing tools (e.g. Filterstorm is currently $2.99).

Imagine, on the other hand, that Nikon (or some other DSLR maker) were the first to offer a DLSR which could simply dock an iPhone 4 (say) and use it as its back-end (including live view, image editing, and so forth). They could include their own “back” for the camera (and in fact they could simply make different “docks” accessories). They could provide (free or otherwise) their own software to go with it. Such a camera would instantly gain caché just for being iPhone/Android friendly, gain immediate access to an existing, vibrant third-party software market, and immediately gain access to the “digital hub” and “the cloud”, social networking, and all the other buzzwords.

Let’s suppose two big camera companies decide to take differing approaches: one decides to turn its DSLRs into iPhone accessories (they probably would phrase it slightly differently) while the other decides to build some kind of proper OS into its high end cameras and try to build up a third-party developer community around them. Which one do you think has a non-zero chance of shipping something in less than a year? How is the other one going to look when its product comes out second? It seems clear to me that the “iPhone accessory approach” is not only more likely to get to market first, it would succeed even if it got to market second.

Back in 2001 there were quite a few companies making their money as hi-fi vendors. Most of these are now extinct, much smaller, or glorified iPod dock vendors. OK, it’s pretty ignominious to become a glorifed iPod dock vendor, but it’s worse to go out of business.