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Photo companies focus on wireless

The technology industry thinks it has the answer to keeping digital photography on its steep growth track--first do away with the PC, then dump the camera.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--The technology industry thinks it has the answer to keeping digital photography on its steep growth track--first do away with the PC, then dump the camera.

That's the impression left by Digital Imaging '02, a two-day forum hosted by InfoTrends Research Group. Instead of focusing on staples such as cameras and PC software, companies were more excited about pushing digital-imaging capabilities into cell phones and other devices, and viewing the images anywhere but through the traditional PC setup.

Camera-equipped phones have already caught on in Japan, and industry observers expect the phones to spread around the world in the next few years, with some studies predicting that by 2005, consumers using camera-equipped phones will surpass the number of those using standalone digital cameras.

You can thank cell phone carriers, who have hit on images as the latest way to convince subscribers to chew up more airtime, said John Lynch, vice president of marketing for OmniVision Technologies, a Taiwan-based chipmaker specializing in image-sensor chips.

"What's happening in the cell phone market is that the service providers are really latching on to this as a way to push revenue," said Lynch, whose company has already sold 20 million image sensors for phones. "They're the ones who are really promoting this concept."

Photos via phone have already caught on in Japan, where subscribers are happily beaming images to one another. But the idea faces a tougher sales prospect in North America, where wireless data services have yet to catch on.

Sprint PCS this week announced the first phone for North American consumers with a built-in camera--the $400 Sanyo 5300-which is expected to go on sale next month. Jeff Hallock, senior director of product marketing for Sprint, said capturing and sharing images via cell phones is the industry's best shot to introduce consumers here to advanced wireless services.

"We've talked a lot about allowing consumers to do more with a phone than just talk," Hallock said. "There are a lot of great things we can do, but camera functions are the thing that people get right away...They see how it would be convenient to have a camera in this device you have with you all the time, and it would be fun to send a photo to someone the moment you take it."

The quality of images a cell phone can capture is also improving, thanks to advances in sensor chips and other technology, said John Gerard, director marketing for chipmaker Pictos. He predicted that within a few years, the market for small, low-resolution cameras for casual picture taking would be displaced by cell phones, largely because of convenience.

"I find that a lot of the time, I don't have a camera with me," he said. "I've almost always got my phone with me. I'm more likely to use it for snapshots just because it's there."

Much attention was also paid to various plans for getting photos from a PC monitor and onto more consumer-friendly devices, most notably television sets. Sony showed new television sets with slots for its Memory Stick media cards: Stick in a card, press a button and watch a slide show of images stored on the card.

And why stop with viewing photos? Visioneer, best known for its scanners, was promoting PhotoPort TV, a $99 device that reads images off of a memory card, displays them on a TV screen as a slide show and allows customers to perform basic image editing tasks via a wireless keyboard.

"A lot of people are intimidated by using a PC to edit photos," said spokesman Murray Dennis. "We let them do the basic stuff in their living room, without spending $499 for Photoshop, without needing a PhD in computer science."

Even computing stalwart Hewlett-Packard is working to minimize the role of the PC, showing off printers that read images directly from memory cards, display them on small LCD screens and produce prints better than what you'll get from the drugstore. "We're actually better than traditional photographs," said Jim Ruder, vice president of home photo printing for HP. The company touted new printing inks that retain their colors for more than 70 years.

Other advances planned include better display screens on cameras, although advanced OLED are likely to be limited to high-end cameras for the immediate future.

Competition among chipmakers is also likely to heat up, as CMOS image sensors--largely relegated to sub-$100 cameras until now--penetrate new markets because of size and power advantages, and sophisticated new designs.