Camera Phones: The New Brownies


For a variety of reasons yesterday, a thought came to me about the place of camera phones in popular culture and it dawned on me the obvious parallels to Kodak's $1 Brownie camera launched in 1900. I couldn't find any detailed history of the camera online, but from what I remember of some History Channel documentary on the company, the Brownies were a revolution because of their cost, simplicity and speed of development. Before Brownies, you had to spend enormous amounts of money on a camera, and the processing of the images were very expensive as well - so you only took pictures of very important things. Brownies came out - and sold more than a quarter million in the first year - and allowed everyone to use cameras and also lowered the barrier to what qualified as a photo-worthy event. After the Brownies were introduced to the world, suddenly there were photos of children playing and dogs in the street and other snapshots of daily life.

But it wasn't just the cost - it was the ease of use, right? You got this brown box with six photos. Click, click. Then you sent the whole box back to Kodak who processed the film and a couple weeks later they returned the developed pictures and (I think) a *new Brownie* ready to take more pictures again! And once your friends saw you taking pictures (or you gave them a photo taken recently with your camera) they wanted one as well. An perfect example of ease-of-use, viral marketing and customer retention 100 years before those terms were ever thought of!

Obviously, since the introduction of the Brownie we've had ready access to cheap cameras and in the past few decades hour photo development. Here's my point: Though I'm sure it's all gotten relatively cheaper, there's definitely been a price point and time barrier that's existed for a while now. First you have to truck your ass down to the photo shop or local drug store, and then it costs about $15 per roll of 36 to develop, right? I haven't developed film in probably 5 years, so I can't remember, but it's around that price I think. So taking that as a baseline - hour+ developing time and around 40 cents a pic - camera phones provide that ten-fold leap in value that a new technology needs to take off.

Digital cameras have been around for a while now, but what's the big deal is that with camera phones, you're now getting the camera essentially free with the mobile phone you were going to buy anyways. (It's actually a symbiotic relationship as the phones get more popular, many consumers will buy the phone for the camera). Then, because there's no film, the barrier to what is photo-worthy drops even more. Now you can take more pictures and not worry because you're paying a very low price per picture (in terms of disk space, etc.).

The cool thing is that the original business model that Kodak has used the for the past century still applies: processing the images. But now it's not film processing, it's data processing. The costs per picture may be close to nill because it's all just bytes being pushed around (though on the carrier networks, those bytes are still pretty expensive) but those charges add up once you realize how many camera-phone users there are out there. I've been repeating ad-nauseum here that the economies of scale for digital phones is mind-boggling big. 180 million camera phones were sold last year, and there's *billions* more cellular customers out there ready to upgrade.

Thinking about this 10-fold leap, this may be why MMS never really takes off. If it costs you 75 cents or more per picture sent, most consumers really aren't going to bother. Even if it's only 10 cents per photo it may not. It seems crazy that when most of the world is willing to pay that much or more per SMS text message that they wouldn't pay that or a bit more to send a photo, but I don't think so. I think people really do treat photos differently. I think this is the reason that moblogging seems to be taking off as the killer-app for camera phones - it's quick and easy to put a photo online for everyone to see, the photo is stored for later and it only cost you the price of the data transfer, which many people have already bought in bulk anyways.

I have a habit of stupidly not respecting the camera in my phone enough. I hear about new phones and I hear myself thinking "oh, it's 'just' a new camera phone, not a smart phone." It's probably ego more than anything: The first time I heard about a camera-phone I thought it was the dumbest idea I'd ever heard of. In 2000 when I was helping create a "roadmap to 3G" for a Spanish carrier, it never dawned on me the possibilities of having a camera on the phone. I used my computer as an analogy: "I don't do video conferencing on my PC and I have a web cam and a broadband connection, why would I want to do it on my phone?" Yes, I know, dumb. But that was what the conventional wisdom was about what we were going to do with the 3G technologies and cameras on our phones. So even now, I find myself thinking about smart phones and video and data services that a phone like the Nokia 7610 can offer, and not really respecting the place that the camera and basic digital photography plays in the popularity of these devices. 90% of the people out there may do nothing more with their cool-new smart phone than take pictures and maybe visit their carrier's WAP portal. At least not for the next year or so. It's an important thing to remember.

Anyways, that's my big thought for the morning. Anyone besides me think it's incredibly interesting to find such close parallels in technologies that are separated by over 100 years?


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